The trials of a book-blogger…

…or How Not to Write a Review of Lolita

 

lolita 3She sits at the screen, fingers drumming lightly on the keyboard.

“Lo-li-ta,” she murmurs, checking if the tip of her tongue takes a trip of three steps down her palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. No – her tongue remains firmly behind her teeth at every step. Having mastered counting to ten in Russian at school, she tries it in a Russian accent. “Lo-LI-ta!” Hmm…better, but still not quite there. In the background, the News Channel is discussing whether the UK has managed to blow up anything useful in Syria. “Lo-li-ta!” She becomes aware of the ticking of the clock – a surprise, since all the various clocks in the room are digital. And each tells her that 30 minutes have passed since she opened the document that stares blankly and somewhat accusingly from the screen. Quickly she types:

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Hmm… accurate, but perhaps a bit harsh? She shudders as she is assaulted by a sudden vision of hordes of angry Lolita fans waving placards. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, she mumbles “Lo-li-ta”, then presses delete. The News Channel reports that it’s raining today, will be raining tomorrow and that the medium term forecast is for rain. The damp cat drying its paws on her sweater confirms the report’s accuracy. She makes coffee.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old golden-tanned, lentigo-bespeckled daughter of his landlady – little Lo-li-ta…

She ponders, then deletes the hyphens. Then deletes the sentence.

This beautifully written – no, scratch that – This pretentious – no, no, definitely scratch that!

James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita
James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita

The News Channel is now discussing the ethics of gene-editing. She finds herself wondering if they could edit her genes to turn her into a natural red-head. Or perhaps they could give her a golden tan and lentigo.

Humbert Humbert is genetically programmed to be obsessed by nymphets, and little Lolita is genetically designed to be one…

She sighs, deletes and switches off the TV. The ticking of the clock sounds louder now. She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp. Lolita is an acknowledged classic so she should be able to write something deeply insightful and possibly poetic about it, shouldn’t she? A small part of her brain knows exactly what the problem is – that what she wants to write is…

* * * * * * *

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I’ve read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say ‘freckles’ rather than consulting his thesaurus and coming up with ‘lentigo’ instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn’t writing in his first language”. Aha! If only I’d paid more attention – ‘cos, in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers’. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one’s time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword…

English-Dictionaries

Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn’t have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn’t find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say…

“…how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”

Hmm! Well… anyway…

Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it’s a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story – for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night – I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn’t sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita’s strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita’s character was a deliberate effect of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn’t convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.

Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don't use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse... a bit like the book tries to do... but fails.
Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don’t use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse… a bit like the book tries to do… but fails.

Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword…

“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

Vladimir Nabokov Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Vladimir Nabokov
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor, only with better spelling. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn’t find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita’s golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.

“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”

My feelings exactly. So, it’s very well written, considering English isn’t his first language. And that’s pretty much the best I can find to say about it.

* * * * * * *

…but she knows that would be an ill-tempered rant rather than a review. Exasperated, she presses delete and switches off the laptop. Maybe tomorrow…

Have a great Friday! 😉

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

the girl who wasn't therePerception and reality…

😐 😐

Sebastian von Eschburg has a troubled childhood. Son of a mother who seems incapable of warmth and a father who is terminally depressed, he also has a condition, never quite confirmed to be synaesthesia, that means he sees colours oddly and has visual hallucinations. This condition has little relevance to anything that actually happens, but is there to give us a great big pointer that the book is ‘about’ the differences between truth, perception and reality. When he grows up, Sebastian becomes an artist who creates sleazy photographs – sorry, I mean wonderful art installations – based mainly on the sexual exploitation of naked women, which is described graphically and at length. He is unable to express emotion except through his ‘art’, but manages to form a relationship with Sofia, an admirer of his work.

The first half of the novella-length book is taken up with a tedious description of Sebastian’s early life. Despite the sometimes shocking events of his childhood, the writing style strips it of any emotion – it is full of short, staccato sentences, attempting to sound profound but failing, combined with some utterly unrealistic sounding dialogue…

“Did you know that the colours of your photographs, that sepia colour, is the ink of the squid? Many doctors prescribe it for depression, to cure loneliness and a sense of the void. They say it can heal a human being’s wounded dignity.”

I read most of this first section thinking that the book was set in either the ’30s or the ’50s, but it transpires that in fact the book is supposedly contemporary, meaning that Sebastian’s childhood must have been in the late ’80s at the earliest. This curious time displacement is not, I think, deliberate, but simply an effect of not terribly good writing. Admittedly some of the problem may rest with the translation, which is remarkably clunky considering it’s between two languages and cultures as similar as German and English. There are in fact some things which must surely be translation errors – for instance, at one point, the book mentions the “capital offences department” of the public prosecution team. As a lawyer, presumably von Schirach is aware that capital punishment was abolished in Germany decades ago, long before the period in which this book is set, but perhaps the translator is not. A case, maybe, of a literal translation of a word without paying enough attention to its cultural meaning in context.

Ferdinand von Schirach (www.guardian.co.uk)
Ferdinand von Schirach
(www.guardian.co.uk)

After its lengthy and tedious preamble, the book takes a sudden turn in the second half, when Sebastian is arrested for murder, and the second half is about the trial. Difficult without spoilers, but this whole section is ridiculous – my credulity meter went off the scale within a few pages and never recovered. I simply don’t believe that any part of this can reflect the German legal system. As well as using a blunt instrument to bludgeon the reader with his point about reality and perception, we are also treated to an irrelevant rant about the morality or otherwise of torture being used on suspects during interrogation. Fair enough, except that von Schirach can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s trying to imply that torture is routine or exceptional. Either way, the torture scene as it’s written is so incredible it’s almost laughable, and I fear the same goes for the later court scenes too.

I enjoyed von Schirach’s The Collini Case very much, but I fear this one had all of its weaknesses and none of its strengths. I’m not sure that it ever had anything profound to say about art or perception but if it had it lost it somewhere between the tedium of the first half and the sheer unbelievability of the second. A disappointment.

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

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Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Morass of woe…

😦 😦

sleeping on jupiterWhen she was a little girl, Nomi’s house was invaded by soldiers. They brutally killed her father and her mother fled with Nomi, looking for safety. But they became separated and Nomi was eventually taken in by an ashram run by a charismatic guru, where she spent her childhood years. Now, in the present, she is on her way to Jarmuli to make a documentary, and also to seek some answers about her past. On the same train are three elderly women, off on holiday together.

It is an unwritten law that the Booker longlist will always contain at least one book from or about India. Unfortunately that law doesn’t seem to specify that the book should be good. Which is a pity, since some of the best writing in the English language comes out of India, so one wonders why the Booker committee ends up picking ones like this.

This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change. We have child abuse, rape, dementia, the subordination of women and gays, violence – both domestic and war. Oh, and poverty, religious mania, animal cruelty and madness. And a dying dog, naturally.

The following is a genuine quote from the book, not a pastiche of it, I promise. A depressed drunk is swept out to sea on a current…

He would not move his arms. He would not move at all. The sea could have him. Out there somewhere his wife was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, making love with his friend, and that dog was dying.

Or how about Nomi, on a sunlit day, looking out at the sea…

She had seen – she counted – the Sargasso Sea, the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea. She’d even dipped a toe in the Baltic Sea – that was icy – and grey like slate. Whole shiploads of children drowned in the Baltic Sea during the Second World War. Think how they died. Frozen.

I am not for one moment suggesting that India doesn’t have deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, but I am tired of reading books that simply describe these things without offering anything in the way of contrast or hope. It feels like a kind of voyeuristic wallowing, bathos in its purest form; especially in this one, where there’s no feeling of political anger driving it, as there is for example in Mistry’s equally miserable but much better written A Fine Balance. On the upside, this one is much shorter.

Anuradha Roy
Anuradha Roy

For the most part, the writing is average. It starts off quite strongly with the description of the attack on Nomi’s village, and then the introduction of the older women. But within a few chapters it sinks into being a list of one sad or violent or abusive incident after another until it eventually drowns itself in a morass of woe, while the pedestrian prose does nothing to buoy it up. I found the characters became increasingly unconvincing as the book dragged on – as I’ve remarked before about other Indian novels they are merely puppets to be tortured at the whim of the author for the supposed entertainment of the reader. This reader was left feeling unentertained, unenlightened, uninspired and unmoved.

And unbelieving that this book was longlisted when the profound and beautifully written The Way Things Were was not…

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

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The Crossing by Andrew Miller

the crossingPassionless…

😦 😦

Maud and Tim are an unlikely couple – he gregarious and open, she lacking any kind of personality whatsoever, of any kind, and apparently unable to speak in sentences longer than four words, despite her intelligence. However, he falls in love with her and she… well, acquiesces is the word that springs to mind. They have a good deal of fairly passionless yet intimately described sex which, thankfully, results at last in a pregnancy. I say thankfully because the exhaustion brought on by the child stops them having more sex for a while. But after a few years of living together, during which Maud’s contribution to the household conversation gradually adds up to roughly twenty words, tragedy strikes! No, sadly not Maud. She survives – proving yet again that there is no justice in this world. Unable to express her emotions, assuming she has any, Maud takes off in her beloved boat where she can sail and sail and sail without having to speak to anyone at all. Fortunately she manages to have a last bout of sex just before weighing anchor, just in case any reader was missing it…

Oh dear! Sometimes a book and a reader just don’t gel and I fear that’s the case with this reader and this book. And yet I feel I’m probably being unfair. It reminded me in many ways of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, only much better written I hasten to add, and while I thought that book was pretty awful, 99% of the rest of the universe seemed to think it was wonderful. Basically it’s a coming to terms with grief story but with a central character with so little personality that I couldn’t feel any empathy for her. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that inside she’s a seething cauldron of suppressed emotion, but if so it’s too well suppressed. Or perhaps she’s supposed to be autistic. I don’t know – but she behaves like a speech-free automaton for the whole book, forming no real relationships with any of the other characters, though of course all the men she meets are attracted to her, for no reason I could understand.

Wishful thinking...
Wishful thinking…

The first half is taken up with her one-sided relationship with Tim, who seems to think she’s vulnerable and that he needs to take care of her. But in fact, she’s so self-sufficient that the rest of the world doesn’t really impinge on her at all. When their child is born, Maud returns to work leaving Tim to be the child-carer. After a failed attempt to get the baby to enjoy sailing, Maud begins to leave Tim and the child at home at weekends while she goes off alone in her beloved boat.

The tragedy happens about halfway through and from there on the book tells us of Maud’s attempt to deal with her (presumed) grief by taking to the seas on a solo sailing trip. I hoped that might be more interesting but sadly Maud’s lack of emotion now becomes coupled with endless, tediously over-detailed descriptions of how to sail a boat, using a bunch of nautical terminology that meant most of it created no images in my mind…

She shackles the tack to the base of the spare stay then hanks on until she reaches the head. Every thirty seconds the sea sweeps over her legs. Water forces itself up the inside of her salopettes, forces itself under her jacket, down the back of her salopettes. She crawls to the mast, drops the remains of the mainsail, binds it with bungees, then bangs her shoulders against the mast while she finds a halyard for the storm jib. She uncleats the halyard, slithers back to the jib, undoes the halyard shackle with the marlinspike she once gave to Tim as a present but which later, somehow, became her marlinspike, attaches the head of the jib, frees the sheets from the furling jib, reties the bowlins through the clew of the storm jib, hoists the jib from the mast, regains the cockpit, sheets in the jib, cleats it, and sits on the grid of the cockpit sole, her chest heaving, her clothes soaked through.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Perhaps people who sail will find this kind of description riveting, but I’m afraid I found it about as thrilling as the instructions on a piece of Ikea do-it-yourself furniture, and even less comprehensible. By the two-thirds stage I was skimming pages, hoping desperately to get to the end.

And then the ending brings the same kind of semi-mystical mumbo-jumbo that nauseated me so much in Harold Fry. Miller avoids the sickly sweetness of that book, but unfortunately also avoids either credibility or emotional warmth. So, highly recommended to people who love Harold Fry, sailing terminology and silent automatons, but for everyone else… not so much.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Bring back Jekyll and Hyde…

😐 😐

jack of spadesAndrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.

One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…

…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…

(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)

Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates

But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.

A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.

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

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The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

Middle-aged hanky-panky…

🙂 🙂 😐

the ghost fieldsWhen developers start to dig up a field prior to building houses on it, the work is brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a buried WW2 plane, complete with partially mummified corpse. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in, and spots something the police have unaccountably missed – a bullet hole in the corpse’s forehead. Immediately knowing (psychically) that this wound was not caused during an airfight, she leaps to the conclusion that the man was the victim of murder.

When Elly Griffiths is on form, she’s one of my favourite writers, so it saddens me to say that she is most definitely not on form in this book. The fundamental problem with amateur detectives in contemporary novels is that it becomes increasingly difficult for authors to find ways to link them to crimes. Griffiths has got round that in this one by really pretty much ignoring the crime and detection element, and writing a rather tired middle-aged love triangle instead – actually a love star, to be more accurate, since there are a total of five middle-aged people all either getting up to hanky-panky or wishing they could, usually with people other than their partners. Fascinating if anyone still cares whether Ruth and Nelson will ever get together, but I lost interest in that strand about four books ago. Ruth really has to stop hankering over someone else’s husband and move on, and in the last book I thought she might actually be about to do so. Sadly not.

The plot is both thin and full of holes, and drags on for ever with Nelson doing absolutely nothing towards actually solving the mystery. It shouldn’t really be too hard either. Given that the victim was murdered during the war, then the killer must be either dead or in his late ’80s at the youngest – narrows the field of suspects somewhat, don’t you think? So since we know from the start by a quick arithmetical calculation that we can exclude almost every character from suspicion, there’s not much tension. Except perhaps the tension of wondering how long it will be before Nelson and Ruth suss out what’s staring the rest of us in the face. But their inability to work it out means that there’s time for another murder to be done, finally expanding the field of suspects and throwing open the possibility that Nelson could start interviews or look for clues or stake people out or… well, something! But no, he sends off for DNA tests and we all wait and wait for them to come back, while the characters fill in the time with some fairly passionless flirting.

Oh dear! I could mention that the reason the body is in the field is silly and contrived, or that to go along with the no detection there is also no archaeology to speak of. I could sigh over the fact that the book is written in the usual tedious present tense (third person) which really is not suited to a book that takes place over a period of months, and which feels even clumsier in this book than usual. Or I could mention that Ruth’s low self-esteem and constant self-criticism become increasingly tedious as the series wears on – another thing I thought she was beginning to get over in the last outing. Oh! It appears I just did mention them!

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

On the upside, Griffiths, as always, creates a good sense of place in this bleak Norfolk landscape, and her characterisation of Ruth is excellent, even if I find the character progressively more irritating. And while the bulk of the book is a drag with nothing much happening except love/lust affairs, the thrillerish ending is well written and enjoyable. But I’m afraid overall I think this is one for die-hard fans only – it’s getting hosts of 5-stars, so it must be working for some people. But I think this fan has stopped being die-hard – the standard in the series seems to oscillate wildly from brilliant to pretty poor, and in my opinion it’s time to draw it to a close and for Griffiths to move on to something different. Her last book, The Zig Zag Girl, not a Ruth Galloway one, was far superior to this in every way.

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

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Detection from A to Z…

 

C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

 

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.

The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unnamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)

c auguste dupin

A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.

This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).

the purloined letter 1

The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.

Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😦 😦

Tuesday Terror! Tracks by Stephen Leather

Thomas the Tank Engine’s evil sock puppet…

 

Time to leave the classics behind for a bit and see what’s new in horror. Stephen Leather was one of the early Kindle sensations and has a devoted following. He is notorious for having admitted to using ‘sock puppet’ accounts to go on all the social networking forums to talk up his own books, apparently even impersonating another author to do so. He writes thrillers and churns them out at a phenomenal rate, along with his supernatural books and stories. And this story is currently no. 2 on the Kindle best-seller list for horror short stories. So it seems ideal for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

Tracks by Stephen Leather

 

tracks

The two of them gaped through the windscreen in the direction of The Tracks as a thunderous roar overwhelmed their ears and a blinding light approached at frightening speed. No, not a light, a collection of lights, red, blue and green, flickering through the trees racing towards them as the noise grew to a deafening pitch and volume. And then it was gone.

The night was plunged into darkness once again, and simultaneously a heart-rending scream of agonized terror cut through the sudden silence.

An elderly man with dementia leaves his home in the middle of the night wearing only his pyjamas. His body is found the next day, 7 miles away, smashed and mangled on the tracks of a long-disused railway line. The police are baffled, so his daughter asks for help from private investigator Jack Nightingale.

Apparently Jack Nightingale has appeared in several books and stories before this one, but this works fine as a standalone. He appears to get his cases via a mysterious Mrs Steadman who contacts him on the astral plane. He is British but in this story is working in America. The mysterious death has happened in a town in Utah, bordering the Navajo Nation territories. So it’s not a huge surprise that the supernatural occurrences come courtesy of medicine men, cursed wampum, evil spirits, etc., (though perhaps a little surprising that a Native American spirit should be impersonating a train…)

thomas the tank engine

When a second elderly man dies, Jack’s client tells him that he had been a close friend of her father, along with two other men. Unfortunately it doesn’t occur to anyone to ask the two survivors if there might be a reason for the deaths, and the super-efficient Chief of Police decides they don’t really need protection because they’re elderly and unlikely to leave their houses in the middle of the night. Uh? She clearly didn’t spot that the first two had done just that. So (after the third death) Jack sets up watch over victim 4, not to save him, you understand, just to find out what’s going on. A pity really, because if he’d asked any of his readers, I reckon we could all have told him…

The old man emptied his beer bottle in one long pull. “This is strong medicine, the strongest. A wampum to summon Otshee Monetoo, the evil spirit. The spirit of death. Take this from my house now.”

Stephen Leather - the real one...apparently...
Stephen Leather – the real one…apparently…

I’m afraid this is a bit of a pot-boiler – I’d reckon roughly zero effort went into it. The whole Native American bit reads like a Brit who knows nothing so just throws out a few clichés he’s picked up from old pulp fiction or cowboy films. The fear factor is non-existent, largely because there’s no attempt at creating atmosphere. The writing is workmanlike, though one can’t help but feel a quick read-through before pressing ‘Publish’ would have enabled him to eliminate the worst of the errors – such as describing the dress and hairstyle of a character twice, differently, in the same scene. It left me baffled as to how the medicine man’s two pigtails had turned into one ponytail – not to mention a complete change of clothing – and even more baffled as to why no-one had noticed this miraculous transformation happening! Truly spooky!

I wonder if people will still be reading this story in a hundred years’ time…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯

Overall story rating:          😐 😐

The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth

the life i left behindWoe, woe and thrice woe!

😐 😐

A dogwalker discovers the body of a young woman, strangled to death, in a park. Oddly, we are told this by Eve, the dead woman, herself – her ghostly narrative forming one of the voices in the book. The main focus of the book, however, is on Melody, a previous victim of the murderer, it is assumed. Melody lived, but has lost all but the vaguest memories of that night and so can’t identify her attacker. Six years on, she is still trying to get over the psychological effects of her experience, and this new attack brings all the original terror back to the surface for her. The third viewpoint is that of the detective in charge of both cases, DI Victoria Rutter, who starts out convinced that the man she put away for the first crime must be guilty of the second too. However, events soon cast doubt on that and both Melody and Victoria have to consider that the first verdict may have been wrong.

I hold my hands up – I abandoned this book not far past the halfway point, and flicked ahead to see whodunit. Not that I cared, except to feel a little sorry that he hadn’t managed to finish the job properly on Moaning Melody. But I seem to be in a tiny minority – the book is garnering 4 and 5 star reviews, so I wouldn’t let my reaction put you off.

It was always going to be a big ask for me to take a ghostly narrator seriously – it’s becoming another of these tediously clichéd bandwagons that crime fiction seems to create so often these days. But Eve revels in her tragedy, constantly telling us of how devastated her friends and family are – how broken and lost they are without her. OK, this would probably be a true reaction, but it really doesn’t sit well coming from the mouth of the dear departed. I fear I got the image in my head early on of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funeral, and every time Eve told me gloatingly of how her mother was drowning in grief, it made me giggle. Not the intended reaction, I suspect.

Colette McBeth
Colette McBeth

Miserable Melody, on the other hand, plunged me into dismal depression every time she opened her mouth. In real life, I would hope to have a good deal of sympathy for a survivor of a dreadful attack, but in crime fiction I feel there ought to be a limit to how much time we are asked to devote to listening to a monotony of woe. At one point, she says she knows the people around her want her to move on and stop wallowing in the past, and I felt rather guilty since that was pretty much my own feeling. It seemed strange that the dead girl seemed so much cheerier about her lot than the live one. Melancholy Melody’s relationship with her soon-to-be husband seemed most odd too. Given that she was terminally depressed, more than a little obsessive, and absolutely no fun to spend time with – a thing acknowledged by both of them – I couldn’t help wondering why he wanted to marry her. That was more mysterious than the question of whodunit, actually.

I didn’t get any feel for DI Rutter’s character at all – perhaps she was developed more in the second half of the book. The writing is OK for the most part, but not special enough to make the pseudo-psychobabble bearable – for this reader anyway. Sometimes a book works for you, sometimes it doesn’t…

Here’s a link to Cleo’s 5-star review to provide a bit of balance . Thanks for the recommendation, Cleo… hope you forgive me… 😉

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Revival by Stephen King

revivalI tried, Mr King, I really tried…

Our narrator, Jamie Morton, first meets Pastor Charles Jacobs when Jamie is a little boy. Jacobs has come to the quiet little town to be the new pastor, and his wife and young son soon follow. For a few years all is well, and Jamie gets to know him better through the youth club attached to the church, where Jacobs teaches the kids not just about God but about his other great passion, electricity. But when a horrific accident occurs, Jacobs loses his faith in God and leaves the parish. Many years later, when Jamie is an adult, they meet again – the first of several meetings throughout their lives. As time passes, Jacobs becomes a faith healer, using his knowledge of electricity to produce what seem like miraculous cures, and hiding this ability behind a fake veneer of religious fervour. But Jacobs has a secret ambition and he intends to involve Jamie in achieving it…

I give up on Stephen King – I really do. I absolutely don’t understand what people see in him. This book is astoundingly dull, meandering and derivative; and, even worse, it’s not the tiniest bit scary. The writing is fine – nothing special – but it’s a short-story plot buried alive under a ton-weight of irrelevant minutiae. We get hundreds of pages of Jamie’s whole life story – an unremarkable one. We get a blow by blow account of his entire childhood and adolescence with no detail omitted – first kiss, first sex, even first cigarette – good grief! He becomes a guitarist, so we get pages of stuff about what chords are used in rock’n’roll songs of the ’70s (let’s face it, we all know ’70s guitarists only knew three chords, even when they were sober). We get his up-and-down career, his heroin addiction, his affair with a younger woman (funny how all fictional men seem able to achieve that particular piece of wish fulfilment, isn’t it?), all in tedious and prolonged detail. I’ve managed to fit his dull life into around 100 words (including sarcastic asides) – why did King take 300 or more pages? And every 100 pages or so, Jacobs puts in a brief appearance, just to remind the reader that there’s supposed to be a story in there somewhere.

Stephen King
Stephen King

Finally, in the last quarter or so of the book, we get down to the point. Jacobs has by this time morphed into a sinister villain type. He has found the secret of an ancient power mentioned in the old books, such as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (which is of course a fictional tome to which Lovecraft frequently referred in his own works) and intends to use the power for purposes he won’t reveal to Jamie until the time comes. He cons Jamie into participating and then…suddenly we’re in a Lovecraft-meets-Frankenstein pastiche with no originality to it at all. And no scariness. And no credibility. Even the name he gives to the secret he has found is laughably pedestrian. And then…

Climax over, does he finish? Oh no, King clearly thinks we’re not miserably depressed enough yet, so we go back to Jamie’s tedious life and ramble on for what seems like forever, with Jamie even more dismal than he was when he was a heroin addict. Every now and again we’d reach a point where I thought that must surely be it, but he’d always find yet another little bit of woe to tack on. I gave it every chance to thrill by listening late at night with the lights off – I haven’t had so many good nights’ sleep in years. I tried, Mr King, I really tried…

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by David Morse, who did his very best with the material available. But it’s true what they say about sows’ ears.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

sleeping porcupine

Fretful Porpentine rating: Zzzzzzzzzz!

Overall Story rating:          😐 😐

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children actBanal, unconvincing and arrogant…

😦 😦

High Court judge Fiona Maye’s comfortable life is rocked when her husband of many years announces that he would like her permission to have an affair. The poor man has his reasons – apparently he and Fiona haven’t had sex for seven weeks and one day so you can understand his desperation. (Am I sounding unsympathetic? Oh, I haven’t even begun…) This shattering event happens just before Fiona is to preside over a case where a hospital is seeking permission to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukaemia, over the religious objections of the boy himself, his parents and the elders of his church. In her emotional turmoil over her marriage, Fiona allows herself to become personally involved in the case, throwing her carefully nurtured professionalism to the winds. This is the story of what happens to Fiona’s marriage and to the boy…

His face had been tight as he shrugged and turned to leave the room. At the sight of his retreating back, she felt the same cold fear. She would have called after him but for the dread of being ignored. And what could she say? Hold me, kiss me, have the girl. She had listened to his footsteps down the hall, their bedroom door closing firmly, then silence settling over their flat, silence and the rain that hadn’t stopped in a month.

I have a strange relationship with Ian McEwan’s books. I find his writing style very compelling and occasionally he writes a brilliant book – Atonement, Enduring Love. At other times I find his subject matter banal or designed merely to shock. This one falls into the banal category. He has set out to have a go at religion or, as he likes to term it, supernatural belief, and has chosen a hackneyed plot to do so. The whole idea of whether the state should intervene when a child’s life is at risk because of a religious belief has been debated ad nauseam and McEwan has nothing new or even interesting to say on the subject. But that’s not his purpose anyway. He is really setting out to show how religion is an evil thing from which children require protection. He makes it crystal clear that he believes that children brought up in a faith are really victims of indoctrination and need to be saved – the suggestion hovers unspoken that it is tantamount to a form of child abuse. The central case concentrates on the Witnesses because, of course, they’re an easy target, but he manages to get in criticisms of Jews, Muslims and Catholics too. He openly suggests that the beliefs of Adam’s parents are superficial and that they will be glad if the court overrides them as that will get them off the hook and see them alright with God and their church – and he implies that that superficiality is common to all who profess religious beliefs. In fact, and I speak as an atheist here, his denigration of the sincerity of religious belief left me feeling furious and a little soiled. I find the attitude held by some atheists that theirs is the only possible right answer displays an arrogance greater than that of most religious people of whatever faith.

He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Of course, it’s quite possible to disagree vehemently with an author’s point and still find the book to be worthwhile. Certainly this one starts off well. The description of Fiona’s shock at her husband’s request is done well and the story of how their relationship develops from that point has much about it that feels convincing. But McEwan has obviously done a ton of research on how the courts work and on the life of a High Court judge, and he has determinedly shoe-horned it all in at the expense of any sense of forward momentum for large parts of the book. While his descriptions are written well for the most part, sometimes he gives far too much detail of stuff that is both trivial and irrelevant, leaving me impatiently turning pages in the hopes that we might return to the story sometime soon. And while I found the characters of Fiona and her husband believable, I found them both to be cold and rather detached, not just from each other but from life. McEwan suggests that Fiona is realising too late that perhaps she should have made time to have children – largely so she’d have someone to sympathise with her over her husband’s desertion, it would appear. Again I found this banal – wouldn’t it be interesting if just once an author didn’t suggest that a woman can only find fulfilment through breeding? Unsurprisingly the husband didn’t seem to feel the lack of children at all…

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

But from a literary point of view it’s the story of the boy, Adam, that’s the real problem. We are told several times that he is mature for his age but, despite having the vocabulary and speaking style of a middle-aged Oxford don, he acts more like a thirteen-year-old adolescent than someone on the cusp of manhood. His reaction to Fiona’s decision left me entirely unconvinced, while his personal reaction to this 59-year-old woman verges on the ludicrous, as does her behaviour towards him. Not only does she behave unprofessionally, which she at least recognises, but her behaviour is inhumane – or perhaps more accurately, unhuman. Adam’s behaviour is manipulated clumsily to make McEwan’s point about the evil effects of a religious upbringing, meaning that he at no point seems like anything more than a cipher. And the ending is so deeply coloured by McEwan’s clear hatred of religion that it has no ring of truth or compassion to it at all.

‘Of course they didn’t want me to die! They love me. Why didn’t they say that, instead of going on about the joys of heaven? That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.’

Overall, this is one I rather wish I hadn’t read. The quality of the prose is the only thing that raises it above 1-star status, but I feel I’ve had enough of McEwan now. I think he has finally removed himself from my must-read list…

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Before You Die by Samantha Hayes

Rushed and flawed…

😦 😦

before you dieWhen DI Lorraine Fisher goes for a visit to her sister, taking her younger daughter with her, it’s supposed to be a holiday. But this quiet little town in Warwickshire was the scene of a spate of teenage suicides a few years back and it looks like it’s all beginning again. And Lorraine’s nephew Freddy is showing all the signs of being one of the possible victims…

I really enjoyed Samantha Hayes’ Until You’re Mine, in which Lorraine first made her appearance. So it was a double disappointment to me to find that this one reads like a first draft. There are so many problems with it, it’s hard to know where to begin. Continuity issues – a girl removes her motorcycle helmet then slowly raises her hands to her head, finding it very painful to do so – one has to wonder what she removed her helmet with – her feet? Inaccuracies – a hospital doctor who keeps his patients’ notes on an unsecured home laptop? Hardly! Gaping holes – the teenager who hacks past a password control on a computer, with absolutely no indication of how he did it or where he might have acquired this skill. And the forensics people are clearly idiots – they fail to notice minor details like a supposed suicide victim having been given a kicking or that the handwriting on a note might not be that of the person who supposedly wrote it.

But all these flaws could have been dealt with by a proper edit. The real problem with the book lies in the much more serious matter of the characterisation. None of the characters rang true to me, with the possible exception of Lorraine. It was as if they were there purely to serve the plot and were only developed in so far as was necessary for that purpose. So for example, we never find out why the teenage bullying victim is being bullied or by whom – he just has to be bullied so that it is credible to think he might commit suicide. The local police are of course incompetent to allow Lorraine to have an excuse to butt in to the investigation. One character is made to appear so ridiculously over-the-top creepy it’s like watching the villain at a pantomime – I felt an urgent desire to shout ‘he’s behind you’ every time he appeared. And the obligatory autistic character, without whom no novel would be complete these days, is so badly written that he comes over as a cross between Boo Radley and Frankenstein’s monster (but without the charm). Again the problem with this character is that he is there to fit the plot rather than vice versa, so sometimes he has to be intelligent and sometimes he has to have the mind of a five-year-old; sometimes he has to be scary and bad, and other times he has to be loving and protective. It’s possible to have a character that contradictory, but only if it’s handled with a great deal of subtlety and sadly in this case it isn’t.

Samantha Hayes
Samantha Hayes

Add to these problems a plot that edges over the credulity line, and it’s hard to find much to recommend, I’m afraid. The whole thing reads as if it’s been rushed into print to capitalise on the success of Until You’re Mine, and as a result hasn’t had the polishing that could have turned this untidy and flawed book into something much, much better. The basic skills are all there, the detective is a likeable one, there’s some originality in the plotting, and because of these things I may read the author’s next book. But I will be sincerely hoping that a bit more time is taken, by author and publisher both, to ensure that it comes out in a more finished form.

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

PS A look at the covers suggests that either they’re really trying to duplicate Until You’re Mine or that they rushed so much they didn’t notice that they’d come up with effectively the same cover design.

Amazon UK Link
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Wolf (Jack Caffrey 7) by Mo Hayder

Well written, unsavoury pulp…

😦 😦

WolfFollowing heart surgery, Oliver Anchor-Ferrars is delighted to get down to his country house to relax and recuperate. He and his wife, Matilda, have brought their grownup daughter, Lucia, with them. Lucia has never recovered from the trauma of the murder of her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend when she was young, and is back living with her parents after yet another job and relationship breakdown. But the country idyll is destroyed when two men come into their home, take the family captive and begin a long-drawn out episode of torture and humiliation…

Mo Hayder is one of those popular authors whose books are always billed as ‘heart-stopping’, ‘pulse-racing’, ‘terrifying’, etc. To be honest, I’ve always thought the blurbs make them look rather graphic, but decided it was time to at least try one. I rather wish I hadn’t. I realise lots of people love Hayder and clearly in the end taste is always subjective. But while I felt there was some skill in the basic writing and pacing of the book, the plot, which started out fairly well, became increasingly inconsistent and unbelievable as the book wore on till, quite frankly, it reached the point of absurdity in the end. And I fear the repeated twists and turns played such havoc with the characterisation that by the end the only believable character in the house was Matilda – the rest had had their personalities so clumsily changed so often throughout the course of the book that they had lost all credibility.

The detective, DI Jack Caffrey, is of course an angst-ridden loner, damaged by his past – a maverick who in this book at least is working entirely outside the structure of the job on his own personal vendetta, hampered on occasion by his over-indulgence in alcohol. I find it hard to think how he could have been more clichéd.

Mo Hayder
Mo Hayder

I feel anyone who has been subjected to my reviews has already heard me rant often enough about the tendencies towards sleaze and graphic violence in today’s crime fiction, so I’ll spare us all the tirade. For the benefit of anyone new to Hayder trying to decide whether this book is for them, I will merely point out, as the blurb fails to, that this book contains physical and psychological torture, explicit descriptions of people’s innards in various stages of putrefaction, episodes of graphic violence, scenes of animal cruelty, the obligatory naked woman sexual humiliation scene (with an imaginative twist, though – Hayder chooses to humiliate an elderly naked woman rather than the usual beautiful young girl – much more tasteful, eh?) and, although the use of foul language is sparing, it’s also strong. Oh, and while we don’t actually get treated to descriptions of paedophilia, the references are all there.

Since as far as I can see the book doesn’t set out to be anything more substantial than entertainment, then it all comes down to whether the reader finds the subject matter entertaining. I didn’t. In truth, I found it to be reasonably well written, unsavoury pulp with an absurd plot, and am entirely untempted to read any more of Hayder’s work.

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

Amazon UK Link
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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Woe is me!

😦 😦

the goldfinchWhen Theo Decker and his mother are caught up in a random act of terrorism, Theo’s life is ripped apart. The mother he idolised is dead, his father had abandoned them a year or so earlier and Theo is left at the mercy of the social welfare system. Fortunately he is taken in by the rich parents of his school friend, until his father turns up to reclaim him. This is the story of Theo’s growth into adulthood and simultaneous descent into a drink and drug fuelled world of cold-hearted socialites and East European criminals.

There’s about enough plot in this book to make a decent short story, or possibly it could stretch to a novella. Unfortunately Tartt has decided to drag it out for 771 pages, filled primarily with unremarkable prose and repetitive descriptions of drink and drugs binges, vomiting and hangovers, occasionally interspersed with a bit of random and unlikely violence. Sadly, I got the image in my head fairly early on that Tartt had popped into the local word shop and bought a couple of the huge economy bags rather than going for the more expensive select boxes – fewer words but more highly polished. Having bought them, she then seemed determined to use them – again and again and again.

…it was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dogwalkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.

The title of the book would lead an unwary reader to assume that the plot might have something to do with Fabritius’ picture of the Goldfinch – well, it starts there and ends there, but the five or six hundred extremely tedious pages in the middle have little to do with it. In fact, there’s very little about anything in the book other than Theo’s depressed and depressing descent into his cycle of self-destruction – and unfortunately written so pedestrianly that it failed to move this reader with any emotion other than irritation and boredom.

the goldfinch painting

Then there’s Boris, who becomes Theo’s friend in his teen years, introduces him to the wonders of drink and drugs and then…disappears for hundreds of pages, before suddenly re-appearing to help tie the thing up all nice and neatly; because that’s how life really works, isn’t it? Neat solutions and happy ever after – even if as in this case happiness consists of an acceptance of dull depression and hopelessness as the human condition. Tartt’s depiction of Boris is so badly done it’s almost (but unfortunately not quite) laughable. He goes beyond caricature to cartoon – think of every cliché you know about Eastern Europeans, add the old chestnut of the good-hearted villain and tack on a mock accent that’s about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney. I’d love to know why, though he lived in Australia and then the US from an early point of childhood, Boris never properly mastered the language.

Donna Tartt (www.theguardian.com)
Donna Tartt
(www.theguardian.com)

But then that’s not the only inconsistency. Given that Tartt spent ten years writing this, I’d have hoped she could have spared an hour or two to google some of her ‘facts’. For example, Theo apparently has an iPod in 1999 – amazing, since it didn’t go on the market till 2001. But his mother is even more amazing – apparently she was able to text when Theo was 10 – 1996, by my reckoning, at least 4 years before it began to be a real possibility for ordinary people. Theo worries about the ‘shoe bomber’ at least a year before that event actually happened – psychic as well as technologically advanced. And finally, would a young man in his early twenties in the US of around 2010 really say that his girlfriend looks like Carole Lombard? Who, for those of you who are too young to remember, was a film star who died in 1942. I googled these little factlets – what a shame Tartt didn’t. It might have meant the book, or at least Theo’s voice, would have had a little more authenticity.

“I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present.”

(Quote from two-thirds of the way through, and a great description of how I felt by that stage…and I hadn’t taken any drink or drugs at the time.)

But I could probably have overlooked these inconsistencies had the plot been more interesting, or the writing less prosaic, or the whole thing about 75% shorter. There are undoubtedly some good passages here, and occasionally the writing rises to a high standard, but these positives are completely swamped by the sheer weight of nothingness that fills most of the book. Since Ms Tartt is not afraid to deal in clichés, my advice to her – less is more. I’ve seen this book compared to Dickens – while Tartt has undoubtedly tried to take some elements of Great Expectations and work them into her plot, I find the comparison not just facile but vaguely insulting. As you’ll have gathered, this one emphatically does not get my recommendation.

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Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

elizabeth of yorkMay or may not, that is the question…

😦 😦

At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn’t provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have abandoned this book at the halfway point.

Elizabeth of York probably had a fascinating life. She may have been in love with her husband, Henry VII. On the other hand, she may have been cruelly treated and suppressed by him. Or perhaps he loved her. Maybe she was seriously affected by the probable murders of her brothers. Or perhaps she was so ambitious for the throne that she tried to persuade Richard III, the probable murderer, to marry her. She may have conspired against Richard to bring Henry to the throne – a ballad written during Henry’s reign suggests so, though that hardly seems like substantive evidence. Or perhaps she had nothing to do with it at all. She may have been influential on Henry in many ways following her marriage. Or she may have done little more than breed heirs. Interesting questions, and I was hoping for interesting answers – but there are none, as Weir freely and repeatedly asserts.

Elizabeth of York and Henry VII Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis
Elizabeth of York and Henry VII
Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis

Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I’m afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity. In fact, I felt I knew her better from reading Thomas Penn’s Winter King, than I do now after reading chapter after chapter of lightly supported and indecisive speculation. It’s good that Weir has made clear the lack of information rather than making assertions about her own beliefs as if they were truths. Admirable – but makes for a dull and rather pointless read. And I’m afraid Weir’s writing style is not sufficient to carry the book – she writes in a dry academic fashion that, for me at least, fails to bring the characters to life and makes even the most dramatic episodes into a tedious recounting of conflicting sources, including extensive quotes, much of which I felt could happily have been relegated to the notes at the back for the use of any serious historian. As a casual reader, I hope for the historian to plough through the sources on my behalf and then present me with a well argued and convincing hypothesis.

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

The final point where I decided that I couldn’t take any more was when Weir suggested that Elizabeth ‘may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry’. The ‘evidence’ for this is that she would have seen the Burgundian-influenced pageantry at the court of her father, Edward IV. It’s that crucial word ‘may’, with its unspoken implication of ‘or may not’. I could as easily say ‘Elizabeth may have been one of the world’s foremost acrobats’ and bring just about the same amount of evidence to bear – i.e., she doubtless saw tumblers and fools at her father’s court too. And I’m afraid ‘may’ is one of the words most used in the book. (338 times, according to the Kindle search facility.)

So in conclusion this book ‘may’ be of interest to some people – in fact, clearly it is since it is garnering some positive reviews. But I’m afraid I’m not one of them. Perhaps at some point I’ll try one of Weir’s books about a later period in history where enough evidence exists for the word ‘may’ to be replaced by something a little more substantial. In the meantime, I will assume, based on the evidence of this book, that Elizabeth of York may have to remain an enigmatic figure about whom too little is known to allow for an interesting biography to be written.

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

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The Strangling on the Stage (Fethering Mysteries) by Simon Brett

The seven ages of woman…

😦 😦

the strangling on the stageRitchie Good is the most talented male actor in local amateur dramatics, so he’s always in demand. Arrogant and conceited, he has a habit of hitting on every woman he meets which, combined with his put-downs of fellow cast members, ensures his unpopularity. But when he is found hanged on a stage gallows built for the next production of The Devil’s Disciple, the police come to the conclusion that it must have been accidental – a conclusion not shared by friends Jude and Carole, who set out to investigate…

At the beginning I thought I was really going to enjoy this book. The writing flows smoothly and the ‘cosy’ feel of it, set in the slightly unreal world of am-dram, starts out well. However, the further I got into it, the more irritating I began to find it. Firstly, the characterisation, which is incredibly stereotyped, has a major problem in that the author seems unable to decide what ages his characters are. At one moment, we have Carole being ‘hit on’ by a handsome young actor – then we discover she is a retired grandmother. Then we have Hester, post-menopausal we are told, also hit on by a much younger man (maybe there is a shortage of young women in the area?), but married to a man whom we are told is much older than her and yet who is portrayed as, at a guess, mid-fifties. These are just two examples of a recurring confusion throughout the book. A mess, quite frankly, that should have been picked up by the editor, if the author wasn’t aware of it.

Simon Brett
Simon Brett

But I could possibly have overlooked that. What really made me start frothing at the mouth was the scene where one character is in a nursing home, and a nurse casually reveals details of her illness and treatment to Jude, who is neither a relative nor even a friend of the patient, and has no official standing. Jude, described as a healer and obviously from the description of her healing some kind of Reiki practitioner, undertakes to ‘heal’ the patient without her consent; then, having formed a practitioner/patient relationship, uses that to wheedle information out of her, which she then passes on quite casually to other people. Neither a good nurse nor a principled practitioner (and we are led to believe that Jude is principled) would ever behave in these ways. But we are supposed to see it as not just normal but in some way admirable.

And the end, which I won’t reveal, is so utterly ludicrous that had the book retained any credibility by that point, it would have immediately lost it. Even ‘cosies’ need to have some basis in reality. You will have gathered perhaps that this book does not get my wholehearted recommendation. I can see how Brett’s writing style could be fun, and perhaps his other books are better, but this one has so many problems that I won’t be rushing to read any more of them.

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

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The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Bogged down in unnecessary detail…

😦 😦

the land of dreamsWhen a young Norwegian man is brutally murdered on the shores of Lake Superior, his body is discovered by Lance Hansen, a US Forest Service cop. As the investigation gets underway, suspicion quickly falls on the victim’s friend and companion. Lance is on the sidelines of the investigation, but realises he saw something that night that casts a different light over what may have happened. Will he put his family at risk by telling what he suspects?

The first chapter or two of this novel are very effective – Lance’s discovery of the body is dramatic and chilling. However, we are very soon bogged down in a mass of local and family history, as Lance, an amateur genealogist, begins to wonder if this is the first murder committed in the area. There is an attempt to draw parallels between the current crime and an event over a century ago, when Norwegians were beginning to populate this area of Minnesota. This drags the whole book down to a crawl, as we are given endless and repetitive stories about the early days of the settlers and details of the family history of almost every character, while there is very little actual investigation of the murder. Suffice it to say that, since the investigators soon find DNA at the scene, it ought to have been possible to wrap the whole thing up fairly quickly, but for reasons unbeknownst to this reader (who suspects that the writer got himself bogged down in an inconsistency that he hoped the reader wouldn’t spot) the police don’t seem to bother to try to match the DNA to that of their suspects.

Vidar Sundstøl
Vidar Sundstøl

Between the never-ending Minnesotan history, the in-depth look at the minutiae of daily life, including what everyone eats and where they eat it, and Lance’s constant agonising over whether he should put family loyalty over duty, I found this a real slog (though I could possibly set myself up in business as a tour guide of the region now). It is well enough written in a technical sense and the translation by Tiina Nunally is seamless, but I’m afraid it is simply dull. And worse yet – it’s the first of a trilogy so the crime is left unresolved at the end. I’m afraid I care so little about the outcome, I will not be reading the other two books. I find it frankly amazing that this book won an award for best Norwegian crime novel of the year in 2008 – I can only assume it was a bad year…

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

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Tuesday Terror! Children of the Corn by Stephen King

night shiftThe true meaning of corn…

Stephen King must be the best known name in contemporary horror though, as often happens when people stay at the top for a long time, he seems to have as many detractors as fans. I vaguely remember reading one or two of his novels many moons ago and not being hugely impressed, but I really couldn’t ignore him when it comes to the search for the shivers.

So I spent a while looking at various reviews and there seemed to be a reasonable consensus that Children of the Corn is one of the best known stories from one of his best collections, Night Shift. It has been filmed on several occasions, both for cinema and TV. I settled down under the covers, very late at night, in silence but for the night sounds drifting through the window of the local wildlife having supper, all lights off bar the reading lamp…I think you’ll agree I gave it my best shot for…

Tuesday Terror!

“They were standing in a bar of dusty sunlight that fell through the luncheon-room’s big plate-glass window and again he had that feeling of being watched and he thought of the boy they had in their trunk, and of the high laughter of children. A phrase came to him for no reason, a legal-sounding phrase, and it began to repeat mystically in his mind: Sight unseen. Sight unseen. Sight unseen.”

The story begins with a bickering couple, Burt and Vicky, driving along the backroads of the Bible Belt when suddenly a boy steps in front of the car. Unable to stop, Burt runs over him – cue a bout of hysteria from Vicky, the first but sadly not the last. Burt soon discovers that the boy didn’t die from the car accident, but from having had his throat cut in the corn fields bordering the road. As you would, Burt decides to roll the body up in a blanket, stuff it in the boot of his car and drive with it to the next town – cue a bout of hysteria from V…well, you get the picture. But on arrival at the town, it appears that all the adults are mysteriously gone and the old Baptist Church has become the centre of a corn-worshipping cult of children…but are the children just mad or is there something supernatural living in the perfect rows of corn that surround the town…?

children-of-the-corn

“The Christ was grinning, vulpine. His eyes were wide and staring, reminding Burt uneasily of Lon Chaney in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. In each of the wide black pupils someone (a sinner, presumably) was drowning in a lake of fire. But the oddest thing was that this Christ had green hair…hair which on close examination revealed itself to be a twining mass of early-summer corn.”

Stephen King
Stephen King

Honestly, I feel there’s quite a lot here that really could have been spine-tingling, but it simply wasn’t. It was cliché from start to end and the quality of the writing was no more than average. The characterisation was stereotyped and both Burt and Vicky were so unlikeable that this reader at least felt they could only be improved by a horrific death. The children were totally undeveloped as characters, so generated neither sympathy nor fear. How many times have churches been bent to evil purposes and biblical quotations used to herald horror and doom? And I’m afraid that as Burt was running in fear of his life and thinking, of all things, that he was glad he had given up smoking, the giggling began. The climax, for want of a better word, was truly funny – unfortunately I’m not at all sure it was intended to be.

I switched off the lamp and had a pleasant and undisturbed night’s sleep, I’m sorry to say.

Fretful porpentine rating: none but it does get one 😆

Overall story rating:       😦 😦

I’m not willing to give up on King on the basis of one story; his reputation deserves more than that. So, if there are any King fans out there, please tell me which story harrowed up thy soul…

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Headlong by Michael Frayn

A major disappointment…

😦 😦

headlongHere we have a perfect example of how a book can affect people in very different ways. Highly recommended by several people whose opinions I value and with whom I often find myself in agreement, I assumed I would love this book. Hmm!

When our first-person narrator, Martin Clay, is invited by his cartoonishly-oafish country bumpkin neighbour to look at his art collection, Martin (though hardly an expert) thinks he has spotted a missing Breugel. Martin then plots how to acquire this painting for himself, ostensibly to have the honour of being the one who discovered it, but the two million or so he expects to get for it is a further motivation.

There seems to be an unfortunate habit developing amongst authors whereby they do a ton of research and then decide they’re going to use it all – every single word – loosely bunging a flimsy plot into the gaps and then calling it a novel. At least sixty percent of this book is Frayn regurgitating the history of the 16th century Netherlands together with everything he could find on Breugel. Not subtly weaving it into the story and not with any redeeming beauty of writing – just pouring it out in a ‘Look what I know!’ kind of way.

“On the table in front of me I have Friedländer (of course), Glück, Grossman, Tolnay, Stechow, Genaille and Bianconi. They quote each other freely, together with various other authors not available in the London Library – Hulin de Loo, Michel, Romdahl, Stridbeck and Dvořák – and they refer to the often mutually contradictory iconography used in two breviaries illuminated by Simon Bening of Bruges in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century, the Hours of Hennessy and the Hours of Costa; in the Grimani Breviary, also done, a little earlier, by Simon Bening and his father Alexander Bening, although the calendar itself is attributed to Gerard Horenbout; and in our own dear ‘Calendrier flamand’, as I think of it, in the Bavarian State Library.”

The other forty per cent is a fairly unsubtle farce as our unlikeable, intellectually snobbish hero tries to do down his equally unlikeable ‘half-educated’ neighbours, while trying not to fall out with his enigma of a wife – the woman with the least personality of any fictional character I have encountered. There are some funny moments, but many of the jokes are inviting the reader to join with the author/narrator in laughing at the bumpkins for their ignorance of art and philosophy or in mocking the narrator for his snobbery. This combination means that the whole book has a sneering quality which left me unable to empathise with any of the overblown unattractive characters.

The Harvesters
The Harvesters

Despite the fact that by a third of the way through I began to skip whole sections devoted to presumably partially made-up art history, it still took me the best part of two weeks to plough through the remaining snippets of plot, mainly because I couldn’t bear to read any more about the tedious, self-absorbed and yet apparently irresistible-to-women Martin. And since the ending was pretty much inevitable it was hardly a surprise, except in that the author managed to make it more unpleasant than I anticipated by adding in an incident of entirely unnecessary animal cruelty.

Sorry to all of you who love Frayn – you’re obviously seeing something in this that I’m not…but I’m afraid I found this one a major disappointment and doubt I’ll be seeking out any more of the author’s work.

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The Annals of Sherlock Holmes by Paul D Gilbert

Good plotting marred by inelegant writing…

😦 😦

the annals of sherlock holmesThis book is made up of three short novellas and my initial impressions were favourable. The first episode sets out to tell the story of one of the most intriguing of Watson’s references in the original tales; that of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant. In the second, he explains the mysterious reference to the parsley in the butter dish. The final story gives us an opportunity to meet up again with Mrs Watson’s employer in The Sign of Four, Mrs Cecil Forrester.

I found the plotting gave the authentic flavour of a Watson narration and the author doesn’t tamper too much with the Holmesian world we all know – no female assistants, for instance, thank goodness. However, there were some real problems with these stories as far as I’m concerned. The over-emphasis on Holmes’ and Watson’s smoking habits really grated after a while. Nearly every paragraph includes a reference to one or other (or both) of them lighting up a pipe, cigarette or cigar. But that paled into insignificance beside their constant cognac swilling. Cognac? I got so irritated by that that I checked and confirmed that never, not once, did they drink cognac in the original. And yet here they’re knocking the stuff back at a rate that would suggest serious addiction issues! Also Holmes and Watson rarely speak to each other without squabbling and Holmes is so excessively nasty to Watson throughout that I couldn’t help but wonder where the friendship had gone.

I can just about forgive these kinds of variations however if all else is good. What I find harder to forgive, in both the author and possibly even more in the editor, are the grammatical howlers that litter this book. Conan Doyle’s elegance in use of language is one of the most attractive things about the originals and any pastiche must at least pass the ‘writes well’ test. Phrases such as

“…somebody within the household felt that it was important enough to secrete from within the bedroom of their matriarch”

and

“It was only the absolute stillness of the night that rendered the subtle sound which was barely perceptible.”

are not only clunky and inelegant, they are just plain wrong.

So for the plotting and sticking within the spirit of the originals, two stars. But the poor quality of the writing means that I will not be looking out for any of the author’s other books, I’m afraid.

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