Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

The poetry of literature…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this lengthy and detailed tome, Crawford sets out to describe the development of Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present. It is clearly expertly researched, and laid out in a linear timeline that demonstrates how the writers of each generation were influenced by the ones before, as well as by the events of their own time.

Since I feel constantly ashamed of my ignorance of the literature of my own country (for which I blame the education system in force during my schooling) this sounded like the ideal read for me to discover new authors and to understand the various literary movements over the centuries. And to some degree it did achieve this, although it had the odd effect of showing me that actually I do already know most of the Scottish writers of note and have read many of the most revered books – an unexpected surprise, and a rather unwelcome one, since it made me realise the relative paucity of great fiction our nation has produced over the centuries. Of course, there are great books and great names, but nothing like the tradition of fiction writing in Ireland or England, for example.

In fact, though, despite the title and the blurb, both of which suggest firmly that this book will be mostly focused on fiction writing (the names mentioned in the blurb are Robert Louis Stevenson, James Kelman, Irving Welsh and Ali Smith), the majority of the book is a history of the poetry of Scotland, which Crawford, himself a poet, seems to suggest has a much more vibrant past and present than our fictional prose. He also talks about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but doesn’t extend the non-fiction side to the present day, so that we hear nothing, for example, of the excellent work of modern Scottish historians, like Tom Devine or Jenny Wormald, to name but two.

There is, of course, no reason not to include poets and philosophers in a history of Scottish literature, but since Crawford had already written a history of Scottish poetry to which this book is described as a companion piece, I was surprised that this volume was so heavily weighted to poetry too. And since – go ahead, hiss if you must – I’m not terribly interested in most poetry, especially poetry written in either Gaelic or Latin since I can’t read either language, I found much of the book rather tedious, and found myself eventually skipping over large sections devoted to poets whom even Crawford himself was describing as not terribly good.

On the fictional side, Crawford takes us through from the earliest novelists, such as Smollett, to those writing at the time he published the book – 2007, I believe. He discusses the continuing exodus of Scottish writers over the centuries since the Union (1603), mostly to London but also as part of the diaspora throughout the empire. This is where unfortunately I found myself in disagreement with him again, although I accept that his stance is as valid as my own. Crawford feels that if one is Scottish by birth or heritage, then one’s books count as Scottish even if one chooses to live, work in and write exclusively about another country. I don’t. I spent a long time coming up with my own definition of a “Scottish Book” at one point, and here it is:

A novel written by an author who is Scottish by birth or choice and who has lived in Scotland long enough to assimilate its culture; and either set in Scotland or saying something significant about Scottish society or history. This means a novel may be set in a different country but must still be speaking to the Scottish experience, thus including the Scottish contribution to the British Empire and the Scottish Diaspora.

Therefore, for example, I do think Ali Smith and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are Scottish writers, but I don’t think that many of their books are Scottish books. Crawford thinks they are. This meant that many of the books he discussed were outwith my own definition of Scottish, so didn’t add much to my quest to read more Scottish fiction. On the other hand, I found his attempt to claim for Scotland some writers from elsewhere who happened to live here for a while, such as Byron, to be more than a bit of a stretch. I still found what he had to say quite interesting, though, especially the idea that it was largely Scottish Londoners who developed the literary imagery of fog-bound Victorian London.

As we got towards the present day, I discovered that our tastes are out of alignment – almost every time, authors he praised highly are ones I’m not enthusiastic about, like Welsh and Kelman, while he is completely dismissive of anyone who veers too far from the heights of literariness, such as McIvanney, Rankin, McDermid. Since Scotland is much better known in the modern world for its influential crime fiction than its literary fiction (or its poetry), this felt like intellectual snobbery to me. One doesn’t have to like all the grim and gritty contemporary crime novelists – I don’t always myself – but any history of Scottish fiction has to recognise their importance in our literary culture.

Also I fear Crawford’s clear pro-Independence stance and membership of the Edinburgh literati began to cloud his objectivity as we came right up to the present, and he became rather nauseatingly complimentary about writers with whom I’m certain he will hob-nob regularly at Edinburgh literary events. It would probably have been better if he’d stopped just prior to his own time as a Scottish poet.

Robert Crawford

Overall, then, this was a mixed bag for me. The extensive coverage of poets may be of more appeal to others, and I did like the way he tied the various writers to the events and cultures of their times. He had a good deal to say, and said it well, about the gradual Englishing of the Scottish language after the Union, and the depressing effect this had on our literature for many decades, perhaps centuries, thereafter. But I found much of it a rather tedious read, concentrating too much on listing names of forgotten poets, and not enough on prose fiction, though perhaps there just isn’t much of a Scottish hinterland in prose beyond our few weel-kent stars.

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Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

There’s only one word for it…

🙂 🙂 😐

When Jim Henderson receives an invitation to spend the weekend at Thrackley, the country house of a man called Edwin Carson, he’s puzzled. Although the older man claims to have been a friend of Jim’s long dead father, Jim doesn’t remember ever meeting him or even hearing his name. However, Jim’s found it difficult to get employment since he came back from the war, so the idea of some free food and free accommodation are very welcome, especially when he discovers his old school friend Freddie Usher has also been invited. Carson is a collector of jewels, and it’s not long before the reader discovers his methods of collection aren’t always honest. Over the course of the weekend, Jim will find himself surrounded by thefts, missing persons, murder and attractive women.

When I say that I preferred this to the only other book of Melville’s that I’ve read, Quick Curtain, I have to qualify that by pointing out that I thought Quick Curtain was pretty awful. This one isn’t awful, but it’s not good either. The plot is a mess, full of inconsistencies, holes, continuity errors and coincidences. There’s no mystery aspect since we know early on that Carson is a villain, so it all comes down to whether he’ll escape or be caught. It’s redeemed somewhat by the enjoyable banter between Jim and his old school friend, and by the light-hearted romance that Jim has with Carson’s daughter, Mary. This keeps it readable, so that despite my harrumphing every time the plot took another leap away from credibility, I managed to stick with it quite easily to the end.

And what an end! Sometimes the word silly doesn’t cut it, while farcical implies a level of skill that is distinctly missing here. Throw in a lot of big reveals, have some terrible things happen and no one seeming to much care, have the police totally laid back about the various criminal acts that have been carried out by the guests, and really, what is the right word to describe this shambles? The one that seems best to fit is preposterous. And what’s even more preposterous is that it seems to have been quite a hit when it came out, even being made into a movie. (Note to self: don’t watch it…)

So not awful, but close…

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

Book 2 of 20

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The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Wedding from hell…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When domineering and narcissistic Jules is getting married to handsome and charming TV celebrity Will, she wants her wedding to be glamorous and unique, so she books The Folly, a newly refurbished old house situated on a small, isolated island off the coast of Ireland. But when the guests begin to arrive, we soon learn that many have secrets, and long-hidden tensions and resentments will soon come to the surface as the drink starts to flow…

The blurb of this and many reviews are comparing it to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, so I’ll start by saying it’s not comparable, either in plot or storytelling. This isn’t a deranged seeker after justice gathering together a group of potential victims – rather it’s a group of victims, one of whom will take revenge against another. The mystery is all in which of the damaged and bitter people will be the one to break and who will they kill? And, of course, in order to create “tension”, the author keeps all their past secrets hidden until near the end, merely hinting dramatically at them throughout.

The trend of “that day” novels surely must be approaching its end now. It feels increasingly tired with every new “thriller” that comes along. In this one, nearly every character has a “that day” incident in their past, reminding me of why wedding receptions should never be held in remote places where there’s no easy escape route for the few sane, sober guests. Not, I hasten to add, that there are any sane, sober guests at this wedding. From Aoife, the wedding planner who hints regularly at some tragic incident that has resulted in a well tended grave in the grounds of The Folly; to Jules’ half-sister, Olivia, having dropped out of university over some shattering experience involving an unspecified man; to Helen, married to Jules’ oldest friend Charlie and suspicious of their relationship; to Johnno, the best man, and the ushers – all school friends of Will and all constantly hinting at a terrible incident that happened back in their schooldays; every single guest is portentously weighted with emotional damage.

Lucy Foley

It sounds as if I hated this and I didn’t, really. As what it is, it’s reasonably good – it’s simply that there have been so many of these identikit thrillers that I don’t see much point in them unless they’re real stand-outs, and for me this wasn’t. It relies hopelessly on piling up coincidence after coincidence until it loses any pretence at credibility, and frankly becomes a bit laughable. However, it’s well written, and, while I couldn’t really believe that anyone would build a wedding venue on an island that gets cut off in storms and is full of deadly bogs, quicksands and underground caves, Foley does use this unlikely setting well to develop an atmosphere of menace. Initially her characterisation is quite good too – she ranges through multiple narrators (of course) and their voices aren’t always distinct from one another, meaning that the chapter headings telling the reader who’s speaking are essential, but each has an interesting story to tell, even if they tell them at glacial speed. Gradually, as their stories are revealed, it all becomes overly dramatic and the characterisation dips a bit, but despite it being grossly overpadded as is standard with current crime fiction, it mostly held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I may have suspected the dénouement would be, as it was, unconvincing, but I still wanted to know how it all turned out.

So, not really my kind of thing but I enjoyed it enough to make the time spent on it worthwhile, and I’m sure it will work better for the many avid fans of this type of thriller, who I hope will not be deterred by my lukewarm, subjective review.

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

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Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

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

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The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

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Something to Answer For by PH Newby

The first Booker winner…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.

At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…

Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)

The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.

PH Newby

So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.

Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

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The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

Man is born to misery…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In the small town of Barbie in the east of Scotland, John Gourlay is a big man. His business has the monopoly on carrying goods in and out of the town and he uses the power this gives him over his neighbours to bully and lord it over them. The money he makes he ploughs into the house of the title, determined to show himself off as the town’s leading resident. But he’s not an intelligent man, and when changes begin to arrive in the shape of first a wily competitor and then the new railroad, he hasn’t the capacity to adapt. The townspeople, long tired of his bullying ways, look on like a gleeful Greek chorus as his business begins to fail. His one hope rests in his son, also John, a lazy, feckless boy who has always assumed that one day he will take over the business and become in his turn the big man of the town. Now Gourlay insists that young John go to the University in Edinburgh, to learn to be a minister. But there, young John will soon get into bad company and discover the delights of the demon drink…

Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won. There is not a single glimmer of light in this utterly depressing monotone picture of how horrible humanity is. There is some humour, but all in the sense of us laughing at them, never with them. But mostly it’s a portrayal of people being small-minded, petty, cruel, bullying and vindictive. I searched the pages in the hopes of finding a character with any positive qualities at all, but I searched in vain. And starting miserable, it goes downhill from there, descending finally into a kind of orgy of alcoholism, madness and tragedy. Although the tragedy aspect didn’t really work, because by that stage I couldn’t have cared less what happened to any of these hideous people.

Book 59 of 90

Looking hard for the positives, the language, a mix of standard English with a liberal dose of Scots mixed in, is very well done. As an antiquated Scot I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but it might be a tougher read for people without a familiarity with the older Scots dialects. There are some wonderful descriptive passages of the town and country, and the characters are very well drawn and unfortunately quite believable, though there is a sneering quality to the writing of them that left me feeling that Brown probably had an over-healthy sense of his own superiority. The humour is mainly aimed at the mean-mindedness of the characters, and is therefore both amusing and off-putting at the same time. The darker aspects have a great sense of inevitability about them – a fatalism brought about by the heavily patriarchal culture, where the man may rule with as heavy a hand as he chooses. Alcohol is shown as the deeply destructive force it indeed has long been in Scottish culture, and still is, though I think to a somewhat lesser degree these days.

George Douglas Brown

But what is missing is any contrast or warmth. Even in hard-drinking Scotland, not all men were horrible to their wives and children, nor to each other. I understand that Brown was writing this, in 1901, as a realist reaction to the excessive sentimentality of the portrayal of Scottish village life in the earlier Scottish literary movement known as the Kailyard school, but I feel he’s gone way too far in the other direction. While I do recognise the character traits, cruelty and mean-spiritedness he shows as being an accurate depiction of the worst of Scottish culture, it is not the whole of it, and by giving nothing to contrast with it, Brown ultimately fails to make his town any more convincing than the twee villages of the writers he’s reacting against.

While critics hail this as one of the greatest Scottish classics, the reaction of those readers who have rated it on Goodreads seems to suggest that the majority don’t agree, and I’m with the majority on this one. I admire the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about one aspect of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. However, if you’re ever feeling too happy and feel the need to be reminded that man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears, I recommend it.

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Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The after-shocks of war…

🙂 🙂 🙂

(NB Since this is a review of the second part of a trilogy, it will contain some mild spoilers for the first part, Sunset Song.)

The Great War is over, and with it so is the first phase of Chris Guthrie’s life. Now married to Robert Colquohoun, she goes with him to make a home in the small town of Segget, where he is to take up the position of minister in the Presbyterian church. The book takes us from the end of the war through to the ‘30s, a time frame that includes the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of the two warring philosophies that would rip the European twentieth century apart – fascism and socialism. In Scotland as elsewhere, the horrors of the war have left scars – not just on those people who have lost sons and husbands, but on those who served and came home, some left physically maimed and others injured more insidiously, with what we would now term PTSD but which then was called shell-shock, if it was recognised at all, or was ignored completely. The other casualty of war, Gibbon suggests, was faith. Church attendances are down, even believers are baffled by how a good God could have allowed such atrocities to happen, and people are now willing to defy the Church completely and openly call themselves atheist. It is in this atmosphere that the rather visionary Robert will try to inspire his new flock and Chris will dutifully observe the Church’s practices while making little effort to pretend that she believes in Robert’s God.

This second volume of A Scots Quair is written with considerably more dialect than the first, and so will be a tougher read for non-Scots or younger Scots, though it’s done very well. I might as well start by saying I don’t think it’s anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. I found most of it a drag – a series of anecdotes about the occupants of this small town, who drift in and out in order to help Gibbon make points, rather than his points arising seemingly naturally from their stories. These anecdotes are designed to show their lives, hardships and the state of politics. Some are interesting, some mildly humorous, many are quite crude, and for me they didn’t quite come together to form a quilt – they are more like scraps of material waiting for someone to stitch them together. Almost no-one is good – I don’t mean that they don’t conform to society’s moral codes, although they don’t, but that they don’t seem to love and support each other. We see children who hate and abuse their parents and vice-versa, men who abuse and sometimes rape women, women who are spiteful and vindictive. There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.

Book 54 of 90

Chris herself is almost entirely passive and is an example of what I mean about Gibbon using his characters. In Sunset Song, Chris had a profound connection to the land she farmed and this was a major part of her personality. Between the books, she has apparently simply given up farming and has willingly gone off to live in a town and become a housewife. Since clearly this is because Gibbon wanted to write about a town this time, it would have been less jarring if he’d left Chris in Kinraddie and given Robert a different wife. A recurring character who changes so completely between books gives a sense of dislocation rather than of continuity. He tries to show that Chris still feels connected to the land by having her going for long solitary walks, but this is no substitute. She also seems to have moved up a class, not just outwardly as one would by marrying a minister at that time, but inwardly, having developed a rather snobbish ability to look down on the townspeople.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Robert is a much more successful character and for me is the heart of the book. Outwardly he seems fine after his war experiences, although he has been left with weakened lungs from exposure to gas attacks. But inwardly, his experiences haunt him increasingly, making his relationship with his God fraught – wavering between loss of faith and visionary ecstasy. He is also torn when he sees the poverty and inequality of society growing ever worse. Politically he is drawn towards the ideas of the socialists, but they espouse atheism as part of their creed, leaving Robert in an uneasy no-man’s-land. I wondered why this man, to whom religion was far more than a tradition or a job, would have married a woman who not only didn’t believe but made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of fulfilling the customary role of a minister’s wife by becoming a central figure in the community. They seem entirely mismatched and again Gibbon doesn’t show us their courtship, which happened off-page between books.

Chris’ son, Ewan, grows up during the course of the book and it seems to set him up to be the main character in the third volume. Through him, we see the increasing Englishing of the language and culture – a theme also central to Sunset Song.

Overall, I found this disappointing and not nearly as memorable as the excellent and highly recommended Sunset Song. I will go on to read the third book, Grey Granite, but more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation.

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Far North by Marcel Theroux

The end of civilisation…

🙂 🙂 😐

Makepeace Hatfield lives alone – the last resident of the town of Evangeline in Siberia. Some unexplained catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and decimated humanity. But one day Makepeace sees something that makes her think that somewhere remnants of civilisation may still exist and she sets off to find out…

This is a pretty standard post-apocalypse story, and I might as well start by saying I found it rather dull and pointless. We never know what caused the catastrophe – possibly climate change, though if so it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the snowy wastes of Siberia. And, while we see humanity’s struggle to survive, there’s nothing terribly insightful about it. Scenes of horror and misery abound, there’s the usual cult religious aspects that are always included as part of apocalyptic dystopian fiction, man’s inhumanity to man is given full play, and we see that those who had stuck to their old traditional ways of life are better suited to survival than those who had lived in cities, far removed from nature and with skills that are useless in this new/old society. It has been compared (probably by the marketing people) to The Road, but it has none of the profundity or bleak beauty of that book – this is simply a kind of adventure story that quite frankly doesn’t have enough adventure in it.

I read it as part of my Around the World challenge, thinking it would be a good one for the Arctic. But while there are lots of descriptions of the wildlife of the area and mentions of the local indigenous tribespeople, I never found the setting came to life for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it may be because I felt that survival in the Arctic region should have been much tougher, oddly, than it’s portrayed. Perhaps that’s my misunderstanding of the region – I know people have populated the area for millennia so clearly survival is not impossible – but I can only say I didn’t feel the cold seeping into my bones as much as I anticipated.

I’m struggling to find much to say about this one, to be honest. It is quite readable, the writing is good and Makepeace is a likeable heroine. I didn’t hate it, but I suspect I’ll have forgotten all about it in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll look for a different book to give me Arctic chills…

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Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Compare and contrast…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…

The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.

Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.

Ruth Ware

The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.

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

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Dr Edmund Bickleigh is married to Julia, a woman some years older than him and far above him in the social status stakes. Her domineering manner feeds into his inferiority complex, but he compensates by having a string of affairs with the surprisingly willing young ladies of his Devonshire village. Gossip is a problem, of course, but Julia is willing to look the other way since she’s not the least bit in love with Edmund herself. So all remains well, until Edmund meets the one woman that he knows is his real, true love – the woman he should have married, would marry now if only he were free. Divorce is a problem – reputation is everything for a professional man. So there’s really only one course left to pursue…

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.

Francis Iles is one of the several names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who under the name Anthony Berkeley wrote The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I recently thoroughly enjoyed. This book, Malice Aforethought, was, according to the blurb, the first novel in which the name of the potential murderer is revealed from the beginning. (I’m not sure if that’s a fact – Martin Edwards doesn’t mention it in his discussion of the book in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels, and I’d have expected that he would if it were true. Anyway…)

The first half of the book tells of the lead up to the murder attempt and is full of rather sly mockery of Dr Bickleigh and all the other characters. Edwards lists it under the heading The Ironists, and this seems like a good description for the style. It’s written in the third person but told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the doctor, so that the reader can’t be sure how distorted the picture of the other characters is by his perception of them. As often happens in books that set out to be ironical or satirical, there are really no characters in this that are likeable, and I must say I found the women in particular come off really badly – either silly, mindless girls desperate to be admired and loved, or gossiping middle-aged spinsters, or domineering/dominated wives. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if this was Dr Bickleigh’s view of women or the author’s, but when I remembered that I have in fact read other books by this author under different pen-names which didn’t strike me in the same way, I acquitted Iles and decided it was a rather clever indication of Dr Bickleigh’s compensation for his feelings of inferiority.

Challenge details:
Book: 80
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1931

I enjoyed the first half a lot as we follow Dr Bickleigh through his various romantic entanglements until he reaches the ecstasy of total infatuation with the new girl in town. Julia behaves more like a stern mother than a wife, disapproving of Edmund’s behaviour rather than exhibiting any signs of jealousy. The odd thing is that everyone appears to like Edmund, and that seems to be more than his distorted perception. He appears to have an outward charm that conceals his narcissistic, selfish interior self effectively from the world. We are shown how he uses fantasies to bolster his self-confidence but that those fantasies seem to have gone so far as to over-inflate his ego. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked Julia, I vastly preferred her to this obnoxious little creep, who failed to charm me in any way at all! So I found an unexpected sympathy for the proposed victim, which I’m not at all sure we are supposed to feel.

Francis Iles

There’s some doubt up to the halfway mark as to whether the murder attempt will come off or fail, and that added the necessary element of suspense to hold my interest, so I won’t spoil it by telling. But after we know whether Julia survives or not, the second half is spent with Edmund trying to cover up his plot, and I found it dragged interminably. Of course, largely this was because I disliked him so much I hoped he would be found out, but also the story spiralled further and further beyond my credulity line as it went on. The reasonable psychology of the first half disappears in the second, and from being mildly amusing, Edmund descends to being simply annoying. I spent the final third wishing it would hurry up and get to the end and when it did, it didn’t surprise me as much as it was intended to, I think.

So a game of two halves for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the first and was thoroughly bored by the second. But then, irony has never been one of my favourite things, so I have no doubt it will work better for plenty of readers.

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

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Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

A messy romp…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When two men enter a locked bookshop through a window and one ends up dead, suspicion not unnaturally falls on the survivor. Philip Balfour was a fanatical book collector and his companion on his mysterious trip to the bookshop was the man he employed as his librarian, Keith Ramsay. The fact that Keith is also in love with Balfour’s wife, Alli, provides a nice motive. But Keith claims that a masked intruder came into the store, chloroformed Keith and by the time he came round Balfour was dead and the intruder had gone. The police are dubious but the owner of the bookstore (who seems remarkably unfazed by the idea of one of his best customers breaking into his shop) is sure that Keith could never have done such a thing, so he advises Alli to bring his friend, the private detective Fleming Stone, into the case.

There are all kinds of mysteries here apart from the murder. What were the two men doing in the shop? A valuable book is missing – coincidence? What was the bookseller’s assistant up to at the time that he’s not prepared to reveal to the police? Who is sending mysterious anonymous letters? Why are the police willing to let Fleming Stone keep hold of vital evidence? Why does Fleming Stone say on one page that there’s a large pool of suspects and then a few pages later that there are very few suspects?

I must admit I thought this was all a bit of a mess. The author contradicts herself from page to page as if she just dashed the words down and never went back to read it over. For example, at one point Stone decides not to tell Alli about accusations that have been made against her in an anonymous letter, then promptly ten minutes later hands her the letter and asks her what she thinks! That’s just one instance – I could have picked many, many more. It all adds to the confusion, but not quite in the way the author intended, I assume. I believe she was hugely prolific, often churning out three or even four books a year, so I guess that didn’t leave much time for editing.

However, apparently she was also very popular in her day and I can understand that too to an extent since, despite the messiness, there is still some fun in this because of the element of humour the author introduces from time to time. Her characterisation is far from being deep, but it’s often quite slyly wicked, giving a neat summation of a person in a few words. The first lines of the book will give an idea of what I mean…

Mr Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Carolyn Wells

The investigation gets bogged down in repetition for a bit in the middle and drags, but both the beginning, when the murder takes place, and the end, when all is revealed, are better, and in retrospect, yes, I think there were enough clues there for the reader to have had a fair chance of spotting whodunit and why. I didn’t – I was too preoccupied spotting all the contradictions!

Overall, not one to be taken too seriously, but an enjoyable enough romp for those times when something a bit lighter suits your mood. And I assume that’s the secret of her appeal. However, I don’t think I’d be seeking out more of her work based on this example.

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

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The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Fighting the flab…

😀 😀 😀

In the scorching heat of the Australian Outback, two brothers meet at the site of an old grave, where a man lies dead – their brother, Cameron. He is far from his vehicle and without water or anything to shade him from the broiling sun. But how did he get there? Is this some dreadful form of suicide or is there some more sinister reason for his death? Nathan, the brother closest to him in age but who has been rather detached from the family for some years, starts asking questions and soon begins to uncover tensions and secrets that make him reassess those closest to him…

This starts off with a brilliant first chapter that is creepy and horrific, though not in a gruesome way, and immediately places the reader in this vast isolated cattle-ranching country on the edge of the desert, where one mistake can mean death to the unwary, from heatstroke, dehydration or snakes. Then Harper gradually introduces us to the various family members and slowly fills in each person’s past so that we begin to understand the undercurrents that run underneath the outwardly united front the family presents to the world.

Nathan’s son Xander is visiting for Christmas. His home is with his mother in the city, so he provides another outsider view of the family, and an interesting perspective on the differences in lifestyle between these isolated ranchers and the urbanites. Bub, the youngest of the three brothers, has a chip on his shoulder about his brothers always seeming to be the ones in charge. The sons’ mother, Liz, has had a hard struggle to hold her family together despite her (long-dead) husband’s brutality and cruelty. Harry has worked on the property for so long he’s viewed as part of the family. And although he has fought against it, Nathan has always been strongly attracted to Cameron’s wife, Ilse. Throw in a couple of backpackers doing temporary jobs on the property, Cameron’s two daughters, and the folk from the tiny little local town, and there’s plenty of room for resentments and rumours, lies and secrets, to have built up in the claustrophobia of this small community.

Harper is great at creating settings, using some of the extreme conditions and environments to be found in the vastness of Australia as her backdrop, and showing how the fight to survive in harsh inhospitable conditions takes a toll on her characters, physically and mentally. Here she sets the book at the hottest time of the year, when the danger is at its greatest for anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of survival that all inhabitants are taught from childhood. If accurate, and I assume it is, it sounds quite literally like hell on earth (to my cold-seeking Northern soul, at least) and I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live there. It’s not just the heat, though – Harper shows the isolation and loneliness that comes with living on huge ranches, some as large as small European nations, and suggests, again I assume with good reason, that suicide is another of the hazards of life there.

The plot is interesting, but the story comes to light only gradually, so I won’t risk spoilers by saying more about it. The weakness of the book is that it’s too gradual – it comes in at just under 400 pages and could easily have lost 100 pages or more and been a better, tighter book. After a great start, there are large parts where nothing seems to happen for ridiculously long periods of time – pages filled with mundane and repetitive dialogue and descriptions of the effects of heat that didn’t move things along at all. I considered abandoning it more than once, and skimmed many pages in the mid-section. However, it picks up again in the last quarter so in the end I was glad I stuck with it. I do wish authors (and editors) would work harder to tighten up their middles – there’s a bookish obesity epidemic out there! Especially in crime fiction.

Jane Harper

In summary, then, there’s an excellent book in here struggling to get out from under the flab. The interesting plot, good characterisation and great sense of place make it worth reading but it’s badly let down by being far too long for the story it contains. I think Harper is a talented writer (which is why I’m so grouchy!), so will be looking forward to her next novel, with my fingers crossed that she can learn when she’s done enough to set the atmosphere and get on with telling the story.

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

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The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

How much is that body in the window?

😀 😀 🙂

In the run up to Christmas, Mander’s Department Store puts on an elaborate window display to attract the attention of passing shoppers. It turns out the display is even more elaborate than they intended, though, when onlookers spot that two of the figures aren’t mannequins – in fact, they’re corpses! One is Mr Mander himself, the brains behind the store, while the other is the strangely named Effie Tumour, one of the store’s department heads. She has been stabbed; he, shot. It’s up to Inspector Devenish of the Yard to work out who killed them, and how and why.

This falls mainly into the category of the puzzle mystery, or the howdunit, and unfortunately that’s never my favourite kind of plot. The detection tends to take the form of Devenish speculating as to how a piece of the puzzle could have happened, and then looking for evidence to prove or disprove his theory before moving on to the next piece. My mind doesn’t work that way – I’m never very interested in the kind of detailed physical clue that shows that someone must have been in such and such a place at such and such a moment and therefore must have been seen by so and so. So sadly I found a good deal of this somewhat tedious, even though I could see that it was good of its kind.

When it moved on to possible motive it worked much better for me, and although there’s not a huge amount of in-depth characterisation, what there is of it is very good, making me regret that Loder hadn’t concentrated more on the why and less on the how. Miss Tumour (why do you think he called her that? Most odd…) was engaged to the manager of the store, Mr Kephim (I suppose if you’re called Tumour, the idea of changing your name to Kephim might not be so bad). But it appears she’s been clandestinely meeting up with Mr Mander. Was it a case of jealousy then? But Mr Mander has other secrets too, including claiming an invention of another man as his own, and charming the elderly widow who is providing the financial backing for the store, which her son is not thrilled about. So plenty of people might have wanted to bump him off.

A mixed bag for me, then, but on the whole the good bits were outweighed by the bits where my eyes were tending to glaze over. Regrettably, the solution when it comes is also mixed – it’s unexpected and interesting, which is good, but large parts of it are still speculative. Devenish may be right in his assumptions, but I couldn’t help feeling he could just as easily be wrong. I’m sure the puzzle aspects will appeal to people who enjoy pitting their wits alongside the detective to try to make sense of baffling physical clues, but personally, being more interested in motive and characterisation, I found it all rather unsatisfactory.

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

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Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

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Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude

Quirky crime…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Eustace K Mildmann is the unlikely founder of a new religion based on Egyptian gods, new age mysticism, vegetarianism, short trousers and general silliness. Even more unlikely is that this religion – The Children of Osiris, or Cooism – has attracted thousands of followers, including some of the wealthier residents of Welworth Garden City. Now, however, Eustace’s position as Head Prophet is in danger, with the rise of the charismatic fez-wearing Peta Penpeti, who may (or may not) be the reincarnation of an Egyptian priest. Penpeti has the advantage of appearing exotically foreign, which appeals greatly to the female members of the cult. Poor Eustace risks losing not only control of the cult but also the woman he worships to this usurper. Factions abound, secrets are hidden, rivalries fester. And when the whole cult is invited to take part in a festival in the grounds of its wealthiest benefactress, Mrs Alicia Hagge-Smith, all this simmering passion leads to murder…

The first half concentrates on describing the cult and its various adherents, and is mildly amusing. But although it goes on for a long time – too long – I never got any real feel either for what the religion was offering its followers, nor why so many people were attracted to it. It seemed to need a heftier suspension of disbelief than I could summon up. The second half becomes more serious after the murder is committed and Bude’s recurring detective, Inspector Meredith, is called in to investigate. The reader is privy to hints about the backgrounds of various characters so to some extent is ahead of the police. The actual murder method is nicely contrived and provides more of a mystery perhaps than the simple question of whodunit.

John Bude is apparently one of the most popular of the “forgotten” authors the British Library has resurrected, but for some reason I never find myself loving his books. They are well written, and this one in particular has a lot of humour around the quack religion and the various eccentric characters who are drawn towards it. But I think it’s that very eccentricity that stopped me from feeling involved – these are characters to laugh at, not to care about. And while I can enjoy a supporting cast of quirky characters, I prefer the central characters to have a greater feeling of realism. Unfortunately, I also find Inspector Meredith a rather bland detective – this is the third book I’ve read in this series and I would find it difficult to give any kind of character sketch of him.

Not one that stood out for me then – in fact, I’ll admit to skim-reading most of the second half because I had pretty much lost interest in the outcome by then. But, since other people clearly enjoy his style more than I, I accept my reaction is clearly subjective. If you like your crime fiction to be laced with humour and especially if you’ve appreciated Bude’s other books, then I expect you would enjoy this one too. Personally, I’ve preferred him when he’s been in more serious mode, but I don’t think I’m ever going to become a die-hard fan.

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

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Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

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

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