Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

The pragmatic dictator…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In their preface, the authors discuss the bias inherent in most biographies and histories of the Franco period and state that they are trying to give a more balanced account, avoiding both hagiography and denunciation. Stanley G Payne is an American historian of modern Spain and European Fascism and I thoroughly enjoyed his Spanish Civil War which did seem reasonably balanced, although tending slightly to the right. Jesús Palacios, a Spanish essayist and historian, was at one time a member of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which I didn’t know when I acquired the book and which obviously set all kinds of alarm bells ringing over his likely bias. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever put money in the pocket of a neo-Nazi, however unconsciously, and it has made me far more scrupulous about googling living people before buying their books.)

The book follows a linear path through Franco’s long life, starting with his childhood as a member of a family with long ties to the armed services, although usually the Navy. Franco was an unremarkable child and a very youthful entrant to the military academy where he showed no particular outstanding talent. However, once he became an officer in Spanish Morocco he soon showed the organisational and leadership skills that would take him through a series of earned promotions until he became one of the top generals in the army. The authors suggest that he gained the respect of the men with whom he served rather than their affection – he seems to have held himself aloof from much of the social life partly because he was not wealthy at this time, but mainly because he had strong views on morality, inculcated in him by his devout Catholic mother, and which would influence him all his life.

Family man – with his wife, Carmen Polo, and only child, Maria del Carmen.

He also seems to have remained aloof from politics in these early years, despite the turmoil in the country. Although a monarchist, a Catholic and a conservative, he saw it as his duty to support the democratic government and when the Republicans took power he held back from open opposition while he felt they were staying within the constitution. As one of the younger and more prominent Generals, the conservatives felt his support would be crucial to the success of any attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Franco insisted he would only agree to a military intervention if the government broke down completely or if a Communist revolution took place. But after the assassination of a prominent figure on the Right, in which the Republican security forces were involved, he finally committed and the insurrection began.

It’s in this section that the authors begin to show their support for the Right. They are excoriating about some of the atrocities carried out by the Left against innocent people on the Right. The problem is that their bias leaves me wondering about their analysis – were these people innocent? Was the Left behaving worse than the Right? This is the fundamental question about the causes and progress of the Spanish Civil War, and the more I read, the more I feel that a truly unbiased objective account remains to be written.

The coverage of the war is not in-depth – the authors’ focus remains exclusively on Franco, as is appropriate in a biography. They discuss briefly the involvement of foreign powers but mostly in terms of Franco’s relationships with Hitler and Mussolini. During the war Franco consolidated his power, thanks to the (lucky?) deaths of a couple of people who may have rivalled him for the top job. By the end he had morphed from being the leader of the military insurrection into full-scale dictatorship, with the consent of the broad spectrum of the victorious Right.

Franco and Hitler 1940

The bulk of the book then goes into considerable detail about Franco’s post-war dictatorship. It reminded me of old history books about the Tudors or Stuarts rather than the more modern style of social history – the focus is entirely on Franco and the powerful people in his court, and I got no feeling for what was happening to the people of Spain or how they felt about Franco’s regime. The authors touch on the fact that there was famine and poverty which gradually receded as the world economies recovered from WW2, and they mention occasional attempts by separatist groups or dissidents living abroad to revive the Civil War. But, in general, they don’t give a picture of how Franco resolved (if he did) the problems that led to the war in the first place, such as land ownership, or what happened to the factories that had been taken over by the syndicalists before the war, and so on. I was left with many unanswered questions.

What they do give a better picture of is the growing acceptance by the Western powers of Franco’s regime, largely because by that time the Cold War was fully iced and the main enemy was seen to be Communism rather than Fascism. They also suggest that Franco moved away from Fascism quite early in his dictatorship, towards what they call “Catholic corporatism”. Unfortunately, I never fully understood what they meant by this term, perhaps my fault but a clearer explanation would have been helpful.

In their conclusion, they suggest that Franco’s rule provided a break between traditional and modern Spain, a long period that allowed tempers to cool and many of the old civil war combatants to die. A growing economy with wealth more fairly spread and better education created a large middle-class, ready for liberal democracy – not Franco’s plan, but a by-product of his policies. They don’t play down the executions and repressions he carried out in the early days, but they suggest that had the Republicans been victorious they’d have been worse, and they point to many other dictatorships that indeed were worse. This seems like a hollow justification to me – if I only murder three people am I morally better than someone who murders four? However, there seems no doubt that Franco’s pragmatism led him to gradually allow a significant degree of liberalisation and, according to the authors, many Spaniards were genuinely sorry when he died.

Book 7

All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of their interpretations. As I’m finding with everything I read about Spain in this period, I feel I now need to read an account with the opposite bias to rebalance the seesaw. It is interesting though that, nearly a century on, historians still appear unable to write objectively about this complex period – that in itself is one of the uniquenesses of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

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The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

The road to fame…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Hoping to capitalise on her recent success in a TV remake of Jane Eyre and at the same time hoping that a change of scene will help her get over a difficult breakup, young British actress Mia Eliot has come to LA to do a round of auditions arranged by her agent. While waiting at one such audition she falls into conversation with Emily, another actress there for the same audition. Emily is called in just as her car is about to go over its time in the parking lot and Mia agrees to go feed the meter for her, so Emily hands over her car key and wallet. But when Mia gets back to the audition waiting room there’s no sign of Emily and she can’t find her anywhere. Mia is not one to give up easily though and she begins to ask questions about Emily, unaware that she’s straying into danger…

This was a book of two halves for me. The first half, where we get to know Mia and learn a lot about what it’s like to be a screen actress just at the beginning of what looks set to be a glittering, award-strewn career, I found both interesting and hugely enjoyable. The second half, when we get deep into the mystery of what has happened to Emily, becomes increasingly less credible as it goes along, with Mia taking extreme risks with both her safety and the career she has worked so hard to build, all for a woman she met for only a few minutes. Given the Hollywood setting, it’s unsurprising but disappointing that the #MeToo trend soon gets mixed into a plot which seems at the beginning as if it’s going to be intriguing and original.

It was only after I finished reading and did my usual googling that I discovered Catherine Steadman is indeed a successful screen actress in her own right – I’m so out of touch! That explains why all the stuff about auditions and screen tests and awards and so on feels so authentic. I found Mia very likeable, still with stars in her eyes and not yet ruined by fame. I liked that Steadman allowed her to be good at her chosen career, and not too angst-ridden over it. Mia approaches each audition professionally, and Steadman shows how an actress prepares – learning the scenes, choosing appropriate clothes for the role, deciding what accent to use, etc. She gives us a good idea of how soul-destroying it must be for the less successful actors, turning up for audition after audition without much hope of ever landing the big part. Mia is not in that position – her role as Jane Eyre has attracted public and critical praise, so she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s not yet in a position to pick and choose which roles she will play, but it’s clear she soon will be. And I particularly liked that Steadman didn’t force false modesty onto her – Mia knows she’s talented, works hard at her job and can tell when she’s turned in a good performance, but she’s still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled by the starry company she’s now keeping.

Catherine Steadman

I also enjoyed the plot until it spiralled over the credibility line in the latter stages. Emily’s disappearance is done very well, with definite vibes of The Lady Vanishes. When Emily apparently shows up again Mia knows she’s not the same person, but can’t find any way to prove that. Being alone in LA where she knows hardly anyone, there’s a real feeling of almost spooky danger when odd things begin to happen around her. Or do they? Like most of the people she tells her story to, the reader has to wonder if Mia is strictly reliable – could the whole thing be an invention born out of the stress she’s feeling over her breakup?

Overall the strengths of this one well outweighed the weaknesses for me, but I did wish the resolution had maintained the level of credibility and authenticity that I loved so much in the first half. However, although in the end the plot may have turned out to be rather forgettable, Mia’s character and her very believable life as an actress on the cusp of international success will, I’m sure, stick in my mind for much longer. I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.

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

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Future Crimes edited by Mike Ashley

Time travel, telepaths and technology…

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

A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.

As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.

Here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.

Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.

So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.

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

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I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

Turn up the air-conditioning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Ex-cop and ex-soldier Jack Williams is found shot dead. The police detective in charge of the case knows Williams was a friend of PI Mike Hammer, so calls Hammer in. To Hammer, Jack was more than just a friend, though – during the war Jack saved Hammer’s life and in the process got injured so badly that he lost an arm. Hammer owes him, and swears an oath that he will find Jack’s killer before the police, and take his own deadly vengeance. So the race is on…

You have to give Spillane credit for being thorough – I don’t think there’s a single ’ism missing from this one! Sexism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and did I mention sexism? Then there’s the violence, the sex, and the guns – good grief, so many guns! The odd thing is: I quite enjoyed it! It’s kinda the pulp version of hard-boiled with all pretence at subtlety stripped out, but lurking in there somewhere there’s quite a good plot and the writing, while not as slick as I seem to remember from reading some Spillane long ago, is pretty good for the style of novel.

Hammer realises that first he needs to find out the motive before he can identify the murderer, so he starts by talking to the various people Jack has recently spent some time with. Because of the loss of his arm, Jack hadn’t been able to go back to his career in the police, but Hammer knows he was still a cop at heart, and might have got involved in trying to break up some kind of criminal enterprise. There are plenty of options – Hammer’s investigations soon take him into the criminal underbelly of New York, in amongst the gangsters, brothel keepers, drug runners and a variety of two-bit hoods (I think that’s the technical term). The men all want to beat Hammer up, or occasionally shoot him. The women single-mindedly want to get him into bed, or marry him, or both. Lord knows why! I can only assume there must have been a severe shortage of men in New York at that time. Although Spillane doesn’t mention it, I also assume there was a major heatwave in process, since half the characters spend most of their time stripping their clothes off. I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that it’s the female half. One of the women is an actual nymphomaniac, but it was fortunate that Hammer told us which one, because her behaviour wasn’t significantly different to all the other women.

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Despite all of that there’s a strange kind of moral innocence in the book. Hammer resists the blandishments of the naked women for the most part, turns out to be a bit of a romantic at heart, and although he happily shoots people, he only shoots bad ones, so that’s all right then. Apparently it’s all right with the American justice system too, since he never even gets arrested for it. I suppose it saves on costly trials and prison sentences. The racism is the standard casual stuff of the time (1947) as is the homophobia. Happily neither plays a big part in the story so I was able to tolerate it, just, as almost all crime fiction of that era, especially hard-boiled and noir, is infested with language or stereotyping that is rightly considered unacceptable today.

Mickey Spillane

I had a pretty good idea who the villain was from about halfway through, but the motive stumped me so that kept me interested. In the end, it’s all highly unlikely at best and complete tosh at worst, but that’s the joy of pulp! And the end is so over the top I found it hilarious, which I assure you it wasn’t supposed to be.

This was his first and all-in-all I enjoyed it, but would be hesitant to know who to recommend it to. I imagine many people found it pretty sleazy even at the time, and it really hasn’t improved with age. However, if you enjoy the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime and can make allowances for the ’isms, then it’s well worth a few hours of your time for the sheer entertainment value. I’d be interested to try one of his later ones to see if he gets rid of some of the rough edges in this one, or if this is typical of his style throughout his career.

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The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

There and back again…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.

When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.

Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.

I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…

Gollum and Andy Serkis (but which is which?)

There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.

The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.

I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!

JRR Tolkien

However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.

Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…

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Till Death Do Us Part (Gideon Fell 15) by John Dickson Carr

He didn’t see that coming…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Dick Markham’s brand new fiancée, Lesley Grant, shoots a fortune teller at the village fair, it looks accidental. But then the injured fortune teller reveals himself as a famous Home Office pathologist, and tells Dick that he had recognised Lesley as a serial poisoner of her previous husbands and lover, but that the police have never been able to get enough evidence to arrest her. Naturally Dick is shocked and unwilling to believe this, but he realises he knows very little about Lesley – she appeared in the village of Six Ashes just a few months earlier, and he knows nothing of her life before that. So reluctantly he agrees to help find the proof the police need. But later that night, the pathologist dies, in exactly the way he described Lesley’s former crimes as having been done – his body found in a locked room, his death by poisoning made to look like suicide. Then the famous amateur detective Gideon Fell arrives in the village…

I’ve loved Carr’s earliest books starring his French police detective, Henri Bencolin, but this was my first introduction to the detective he is best remembered for, Gideon Fell. In style, this is more in line with the normal Golden Age tradition, without the delicious atmosphere of decadent horror that pervades the Bencolin books. Carr is considered one of the greatest proponents of the locked room mystery, or impossible crime, and the emphasis in this one is very much on that aspect, although there’s plenty of room for some good characterisation and lots of clever misdirection.

On first meeting, I found I wasn’t wholly enamoured with Gideon Fell. He’s one of these arrogant know-it-all detectives, who is extremely rude to everyone around him, and he keeps his cards close to his chest except for the occasional enigmatic utterance. Perhaps he’ll grown on me as I read more of the books. Dick Markham, however, is a very likeable lead character, and his confusion over his feelings about Lesley is done very well. There is a mild love triangle, in that there is another woman everyone in the village expected Dick to marry before Lesley came along, and she provides another layer to Dick’s jumbled feelings. Lesley herself, as is necessary in a chief suspect, is not so well revealed – Carr very successfully keeps her ambiguous so that I swayed back and forwards many times as to whether she was guilty or innocent. If she is innocent, there are plenty of other characters who may have done the deed, though Carr doesn’t concentrate much on possible motives for them – the focus is more on how the deed was done than why. The same problem applies if Lesley is guilty – how did she do it?

John Dickson Carr

The locked room solution is excellent, and I think fair play for those who have the kind of mind that can work these things out. I almost never can, and this was no exception, but at least I understood the explanation at the end of how it was done and felt it was all quite feasible, which is considerably more than I can say for a lot of impossible crimes. The whodunit solution I found to be a bit of an anti-climax after all the intriguing ambiguity and false scents which came before, though again in retrospect I think Carr gave enough clues for the discerning reader to be able to beat the detective – not this reader though! But despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I enjoyed it very much. Often I find locked room mysteries are so focused on the puzzle they can be a bit dull, but Carr gives enough weight to the characterisation and Dick’s inner turmoil to keep it interesting. Personally I prefer the style of the Bencolin books, but that’s merely a matter of subjective preference due to my love of the horror aspects of those. For people who love a more traditional locked room mystery, then I can quite see why Fell would be the detective of choice. I look forward to getting to know him better.

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

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My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.

When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.

I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.

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The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.

She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).

Willa Cather

The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.

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

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When inter-ethnic warfare in Nigeria leads to the Igbo breaking away to form their own short-lived nation of Biafra, the five main characters in the book find themselves caught up in the slaughter and mass starvation that results. Olanna and Kainene are twins, the privileged daughters of a wealthy businessman, who have both returned to Nigeria after being educated in English universities. Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, an academic with strong nationalist and revolutionary leanings. Kainene falls for Richard, a white man who is failing to write the book he came to Nigeria to research, and whose main purpose is to personify white guilt. Then there’s Ugwu, servant to Odenigbo and Olanna – his purpose appears to be to show how devoted the servant class is to the privileged who sit around pontificating while their servants do all the work of cooking, cleaning and bringing up their children for them, while having to beg for an occasional day off to visit their families.

This one took me nearly two months to read, largely because I found it almost completely flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. I learned a good deal about the background to the Biafran War, which happened when I was far too young to understand it but still registered with me and all my generation because of the horrific pictures of starving children that were shown on the news night after night for many months. I also learned a lot about the life of the privileged class in Nigeria – those with a conflicted relationship with their colonial past, adopting British education, the English language and the Christian religion while despising the colonisers who brought these things to their country. Adichie manages to be relatively even-handed – whenever she has one of her characters blame the British for all their woes, she tends to have another at least hint at the point that not all the atrocities Africans carry out against each other can be blamed on colonisation, since inter-ethnic hatreds and massacres long predated colonisation.

Biafran Flag

In this case it is the Igbo who are presented as the persecuted – the same ethnic group as Chinua Achebe writes about in Things Fall Apart, a book which I feel has clearly influenced Achebe’s style. The attempt at a degree of even-handedness struck me in both, as did the method of telling the political story through the personal lives of a small group of characters. In both, that style left me rather disappointed since I am always more interested in the larger political picture than in the domestic arena, but that’s simply a subjective preference. I felt I learned far more about how the Biafrans lived – the food they ate, the way they cooked, the superstitions of the uneducated “bush people”, the marriage customs, etc. – than I did about why there was such historical animosity between the northern Nigerians and the Igbo, which personally would have interested me more. On an intellectual level, however, I feel it’s admirable that Adichie chose not to devote her book to filling in the ignorance of Westerners, but instead assumed her readership would have enough background knowledge – like Achebe’s, this is a tale told by an African primarily for Africans, and as such I preferred it hugely to Americanah, which I felt was another in the long string of books written by African and Asian ex-pats mainly to pander to the white-guilt virtue-signalling of the Western English-speaking world.

Although I found all of the descriptions of life before and during the war interesting, the main problem of the book for me was that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. Just as I find annoying British books that concentrate on the woes of the privileged class, and especially on the hardships of writers, so I found it here too. Adichie is clearly writing about the class she inhabits – academics, politically-minded, wealthy enough to have servants – and I found her largely uncritical of her own class, and rather unintentionally demeaning towards the less privileged – the servants and the people without access to a British University education, many without even the right to basic schooling.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is far more interested in romantic relationships than I am, and the bed-hopping of her main characters occasionally gave me the feeling I had drifted into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty by mistake. I was also a little taken aback, given Adichie’s reputation as a feminist icon, that it appeared that the men’s infidelities seemed to be more easily forgiven than the women’s, even by the women. (I don’t think she’s wrong in this – it just surprised me that she somehow didn’t seem to highlight it as an issue.) But what surprised me even more, and left a distinctly unpleasant taste, was when she appeared to be trying to excuse and forgive a character who participated in a gang-rape of a young girl during the war. I think she was perhaps suggesting that war coarsens us all and makes us behave out of character, and I’m sure that’s true. But it doesn’t make it forgivable, and this feminist says that women have to stop helping men to justify or excuse rape in war. There is no justification, and I was sorry that that particular character was clearly supposed to have at least as much of my sympathy as the girl he raped.

So overall, a mixed reaction from me. I’m glad to have read it, I feel I learned a considerable amount about the culture of the privileged class of the Igbo and the short-lived Biafran nation, but I can’t in truth say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.

Book 7 of 12

(Sorry for disappearing. I had a little health issue – nothing serious, but it left me kinda wabbit*. I hope to be back in action properly soonish.

*Wabbit: Scottish word meaning listless, lethargic, tired, and overcome with a desire to lie in bed eating chocolate. Though that last part may be just me.)

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The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

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

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The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

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

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The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Manningtree WitchesIt is 1643, the time of the English Civil War. In the town of Manningtree in Essex, men are scarce as the young and fit are off fighting. Rebecca West and her widowed mother are among the women who live on the margins of society, looked down on by the respectable matrons of the town for the crimes of being poor and husbandless. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in town bringing his Puritanical ideas regarding witches, suddenly these women are seen as a threat – the cause of any ill which may befall one of the town’s worthy residents. And when Matthew Hopkins decides to style himself Witchfinder, the women find themselves in danger…

This is a re-imagining of the true story of the Essex witch trials of 1644-7, led by Hopkins and resulting in the deaths of many women, several of them from Manningtree and Mistley where the book is set. Hopkins died young and very little is known of him other than his witchfinding, and the women are mostly known only through the records of the trials, so Blakemore has created her story from little more than bare bones. In the afterword, she suggests that her aim was to give a voice to these voiceless women, and to tell the story of the persecuted rather than the persecutor. I’d say she succeeds very well.

Rebecca tells us the story in her own voice, and it is certainly not the voice of a shrinking victim. She may be powerless but she has strong opinions and a rebellious nature, and a sense of humour that helps her through the darkest times. She recognises the unfairness in society between rich and poor, man and woman, but there’s nothing she can do to change that so her aim is to get through life as best she can regardless. She has the benefit of physical attractiveness, but her low social status means that men are likely to look to her for sex rather than marriage. She doesn’t think of her mother and her friends as witches, but she knows they have a lot of superstitions, use folklore remedies in treating illnesses, and are not beyond cursing their irreproachable neighbours when angered.

England has been a religious mess since Henry VIII, and the “true faith” has changed so many times it feels understandable that Rebecca and her kind have developed a kind of cynicism over the whole subject. Hopkins, however, is a righteous man, sure of his faith, the most important line in his personal Bible being “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Or is it that he’s simply a straightforward religious misogynist, interpreting his sexual feelings towards women through the prism of his Biblical belief that all women are a) sinful and b) cursed? Blakemore gives the reader room to believe either version of him, or both.

The story itself is well told, with an excellent mix of light and dark – the light provided by Rebecca’s resilience and humour, and the dark by the events in which she finds herself caught up. I felt that perhaps the winding-up section at the end went on a little too long, somewhat reducing the impact of the trial and its aftermath, but otherwise I felt the pacing was good, holding my interest throughout.

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

There is, however, one major problem with the book which prevents me giving it the full five stars, and that, I’m afraid, is in the writing. Blakemore clearly has a lot of talent, but my one piece of advice to her would be to throw out the thesaurus and buy a good dictionary. It is much better to use a plain word correctly than a fancy word wrongly: for example, “rubbing one hand on a sordid apron” – yes, in some contexts sordid and dirty can be synonyms, but not this one. Then there are the shrieking anachronisms – “for shits and giggles”, “coin-operated”, “smack me upside the head”, etc. And the plain errors – who instead of whom, and so on. And sometimes the descriptive passages run away with her completely – “The sunbeams bouncing in through the parlour window feel like hot spindles to his eyes, and slice right through the soft, compromised meat of his head” or “While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did.” I hasten to add it’s not all like this by any means – for the most part her writing is very good, but she is clearly trying too hard to be “creative”, and there’s enough of it that it was a constant irritation to me, and took away from my ability to get lost in the story. It is ultimately the author’s responsibility to get the writing right, but yet again I have to ask, what did the editor do to earn his/her fee with this one?

The fact that I still enjoyed it despite these problems is an indication of the strengths of the story, the characterisation and Blakemore’s underlying writing talent. Hopefully as she gains experience she will learn to rely on these things and not stretch too far in a bid for an original turn of phrase. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

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Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

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

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The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

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The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

When the detective is more complicated than the plot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Cuckoo's CallingWhen supermodel Lulu Landry falls to her death from her apartment window, the police put it down to suicide. She had been seen earlier that evening having a big bust-up with her boyfriend. But her brother, John Bristow, doesn’t believe that verdict – he’s convinced that Lulu was murdered. So he seeks the help of Cormoran Strike, ex-military man and not very successful private detective, to investigate.

Strike has a complicated family and backstory, clearly designed to be a recurring detective in a long-running series, as of course he has indeed become. Son of a hippy groupie mother and a rockstar father, with a parcel of half-siblings on his father’s side with whom he has very little contact and one half-sibling on his mother’s side to whom he’s close, when we first meet him he is in the middle of a messy break-up with his long-term fiancée which leaves him homeless and sleeping in his office. Add to this his background as a military veteran who lost a leg when his vehicle was bombed, and, as I said, complicated. All of this complication may be why the book is ridiculously overlong. (FF muses: Poirot just came from Belgium – that was enough, wasn’t it? Miss Marple has even less backstory. And yet Agatha Christie books have been selling for a century. I wonder if readers in 2121 will still be reading about Cormoran Strike.)

Lulu Landry has an equally complicated background which we learn about at equal length. The adopted mixed race daughter of white parents, her beauty has made her rich and famous but not necessarily happy. Her boyfriend is perpetually drunk or high on drugs and the two regularly have spectacular rows. Her brother, also adopted, seems to love her to an unhealthy degree. Her adoptive mother, who seems to have treated Lulu like a pretty doll, is now dying of cancer. But there’s no real reason why Lulu would have committed suicide on this particular night – in fact, it seems highly unlikely. Just as well the police were so easily satisfied, though, or there would have been no case for Strike to investigate, I suppose!

Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith

Strike is assisted in his investigation by his new temporary secretary, Robin, who has secretly always wanted to be a private detective and discovers to her own delight and Strike’s surprise that she has something of a talent for the work. Soon she’s out from behind her typewriter, joining in on the action. Fortunately she finds Strike’s habit of descending into drunken maudlin self-pity more endearing than I did, and soon becomes a kind of emotional prop to him along with all her other skills.

I feel I’m being unfairly negative about the book. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading it. Galbraith’s writing style has an easy flow to it which keeps those pages turning even when there’s a lot of repetition and extraneous padding. I could have lived without the constant unnecessary swearing, which I assume Galbraith throws in to show she can write for adults as well as children. I’m pretty sure that in fact children would appreciate the foul-mouthery far more than this adult did. But otherwise I found it very readable, easy on the brain and, sadly, almost instantly forgettable. I wouldn’t refuse to read another in the series, but I won’t be rushing out to acquire them either, especially since I believe they actually increase in length as they go on, with the latest one coming in at a frankly ludicrous 944 pages. They would have to be chocolate pages to tempt me to pick that one up!

People's Choice LogoBook 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May. A reasonably enjoyable read, and I’m happy it’s off my TBR – so a win! Thanks to all who voted. 😀

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Sussex Downs MurderBrothers John and William Rothers share the family home and lime manufacturing business at Chalklands Farm in Sussex. William’s wife also lives there, which is unfortunate, or convenient, depending on your viewpoint, since she seems to be at least as close to John as she is to her husband. Then John decides to go on a short driving holiday, but he doesn’t get far – his car is found abandoned a few miles from home and there are signs of violence. No sign of John though, alive or dead. Inspector Meredith has recently been transferred to the area and is put in charge of the case. First he’ll have to determine if John has been kidnapped or murdered before he can hope to discover whodunit…

I’ve loved a couple of John Bude’s books and been pretty unimpressed by a couple more, so wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. And it fell in the middle for me – reasonably enjoyable but not nearly as entertaining as he can be. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s the Inspector Meredith books that don’t work too well for me. Not that I don’t like the Inspector – as a character he’s fine and in this one there’s some entertaining stuff between him and his teenage son which gives him a more rounded feel than in some of the other books. It’s more the investigative technique that puts me off, very painstaking and slow, with lots of examining and re-examining clues as each fresh piece of information comes to light. I’m aware I’ve said similar things about a few of the Golden Age police procedurals, especially the Inspector French novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, so I was interested to learn from Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Meredith is indeed modelled on French. However Edwards says that Meredith “possesses a sharper sense of humour” and an “innate humanity”, with both of which I agree. This kind of detailed procedural is clearly a specific style of mystery story popular at the time, and Bude certainly does it better than most.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 35
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1936

He’s also very good at settings and here he brings the area of the Sussex Downs to life, with the sparsely populated rural district playing a major role in the solving of the mystery. First published in 1936, there was still little enough traffic on the roads for people to notice and recognise passing vehicles, and even remember them some days later. Local gossip plays its part too, with there being few enough people around for everyone to have a fair idea of what everyone else might be up to, or at least to think they do.

The solution seems a bit obvious from fairly early on, unfortunately, but the meat of the story is really in how Meredith goes about his investigation. As he struggles to find proof of a murder having been done much less to prove who may have done it, we see his frustration and the pressure he is put under by his superiors. But Meredith is a patient man, willing to admit when a theory isn’t working out and to go back to the beginning to formulate a new one.

Overall, then, enjoyable enough to while away a few hours but not a top rank mystery novel, which has been pretty much my reaction to all of the Inspector Meredith novels I’ve read so far. I think in future I’ll try to stick to Bude’s standalones where, in my limited experience of him, he seems to show much more inventiveness and humour, and achieves a better pace.

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Guilty secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The SurvivorsWhen Keiran Elliot returns to the small beachside town of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania, he brings along the grief and guilt that have never left him since a tragic incident there several years before when he was still a teenager. Keiran and his partner, Mia, who also grew up in the town, have returned to visit Keiran’s parents – Brian, now suffering from dementia and about to be moved into a care home, and Verity, still also struggling with the after-effects of that incident. No sooner are they home than another tragedy rocks the town, when the body of a young woman is found on the beach. As the investigation into her death proceeds, memories of those earlier events are stirred up among the townsfolk, and old secrets begin to be revealed.

As always, Jane Harper’s greatest strength is in her settings, each one different but always sharing a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. Evelyn Bay is one of those small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business and where every small incident is worthy of note. In summer the town is crowded with tourists, there for the ocean. But when the story begins the season has just finished and the only people left are the year-round residents, most of whom have known each other all their lives.

Although there is a mystery – more than one, in fact – at the heart of the book, the major theme is how grief and guilt can impact both individuals and a community. I’ll hold my hands up and say this is not a theme I’m fond of – it appears in a lot of contemporary crime fiction and, even when its as well done as it is in this one, it changes the focus away from the detection and solving of the crime, which is primarily what I read crime fiction for, and makes the tone gloomy and depressing rather than intriguing and entertaining. I don’t think this novel is “fair play” – the solution seems to come out of nowhere, and frankly there could have been any number of equally credible solutions on the information available to the reader. Written in the third person, it’s told mainly from Keiran’s perspective, so the reader knows no more than he about what the police may have uncovered. Again this makes it feel less like a mystery novel and more like an exploration of the impact of a crime on the people affected by it. So from that point of view, I found it all rather unsatisfying.

However, the quality of Harper’s writing and her excellent characterisation keep it very readable. After a very slow start, with far too much of the “what happened that day long ago” faux suspense stuff for my liking, Harper finally reveals what did happen that day and then happily the pace picks up. She gives a very believable depiction of how quickly gossip and suspicion spread through a small community, and how social media allows people to make anonymous allegations that can lead to a lot of hurt. She also shows how the pressure of being known by everyone can add to feelings of guilt or make suspicion feel overwhelming – there’s no escape to the welcome anonymity that can be found in big cities. Harper doesn’t rely on unbelievable twists – every character behaves in ways that feel psychologically in tune with the personality she creates for them, which means that the solution, even if it does all happen a little too conveniently, is entirely credible and feels emotionally true.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I struggled to get into it in the beginning, but once I did I found it quite absorbing. Keiran, Mia and their baby daughter make a kind of triple character – together they are more than the sum of their parts, so to speak. The town takes on its own persona, as does the ocean which has given so much to the townspeople but has also been the source of tragedy over the years. And there’s a kind of coming of age aspect to it, too, as Keiran finds himself, now an adult and a father, reassessing his own youth and his understanding of his family and friends. For me, there’s too much emphasis on the role of grief and not enough actual mystery-solving for it to have become a favourite, but that’s a subjective viewpoint – it’s very good at what it’s setting out to be.

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

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The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

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

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

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

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Don’t go into the woodshed!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Stella Gibbons
Stella Gibbons

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

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

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

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