We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

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Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

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In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

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The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

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

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford

Careless Talk Costs Lives!

First published in 1911, this is a charming little tale of murder and revenge from beyond the tomb – a warning to all of you who may be contemplating bumping off your spouses. Go ahead, by all means, but don’t keep your victim’s skull in your cupboard…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Screaming Skull
by F. Marion Crawford

F Marion Crawford

I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.

One night, an old man has a friend visiting him in his isolated cottage. The cottage used to belong to his cousin, Luke Pratt and his wife, known to us only as Mrs Pratt. The old man tells his friend of the strange and terrible scream that often disturbs the night…

Sometimes, about this time of year–hallo!–there it is! Don’t be frightened, man–it won’t eat you–it’s only a noise, after all! But I’m glad you’ve heard it, because there are always people who think it’s the wind, or my imagination, or something. You won’t hear it again tonight, I fancy, for it doesn’t often come more than once.

The old man thinks he knows why he is being haunted. Not long after a visit he had paid to the Pratts, Mrs Pratt died, apparently in her sleep. But the old man thinks there may have been a darker cause…

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest. I have always blamed myself for Mrs. Pratt’s death, and I suppose I was responsible for it in a way, though heaven knows I never wished her anything but long life and happiness. If I had not told that story she might be alive yet. That is why the thing screams at me, I fancy.

(Illustration by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt)

The story he had told had been…

…about a woman in Ireland who did for three husbands before anyone suspected foul play.

Did you never hear that tale? The fourth husband managed to keep awake and caught her, and she was hanged. How did she do it? She drugged them, and poured melted lead into their ears through a little horn funnel when they were asleep…

Some time after Mrs Pratt’s death, Luke Pratt also died… in mysterious and dreadful circumstances…

How? He was found dead on the beach one morning, and there was a coroner’s inquest. There were marks on his throat, but he had not been robbed. The verdict was that he had come to his end “By the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown”…

When his body was found, there was a skull with it, which he had apparently been carrying home in a hat-box…

It had rolled out and lay near his head, and it was a remarkably fine skull, rather small, beautifully shaped and very white, with perfect teeth. That is to say, the upper jaw was perfect, but there was no lower one at all, when I first saw it.

On inheriting the house after Pratt’s death, the old man is shown the skull which is now kept, still in the hat-box, in a cupboard in the bedroom. He discovers that it… rattles… as if there is something inside it…

No, I’ve never tried to get it out, whatever it is; I’m afraid it might be lead, don’t you see? And if it is, I don’t want to know the fact, for I’d much rather not be sure. If it really is lead, I killed her quite as much as if I had done the deed myself. Anybody must see that, I should think…

* * * * * * *

This is quite fun! It’s told almost entirely as a kind of monologue as the old man tells the story to his friend, and it’s pretty long. There’s no real mystery to it as my quotes, which are all from the early part of the story, will have indicated. But it builds up a nice sense of creepy anticipation as candles blow out, and the wind rattles the windows, and the occasional shriek sounds from upstairs. The old man goes on to tell of all the strange things that have happened since he moved into the house, and lots of the usual horror elements are here – servants who won’t stay in the house overnight, sextons and graves, attempts to silence the skull that just seem to make it angrier. There’s not much new here, but it’s not trying to be innovative – it’s just a good ghost story well told. It might be a little long for modern tastes, but that allows it to build up the atmosphere slowly as we wait for the inevitable to happen…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s about 13,000 words.

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Apparently it’s loosely based on a “real” haunting of a farmhouse in Dorsetshire, called Bettiscombe Manor. The legend attached to that screaming skull is that it belonged to a slave who was brought there in the 17th century – you can read more about it here.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

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There’s also a 1958 film based on the Crawford story which, though they’ve changed it quite a lot, retains the basic horror elements of the original. The opening scene claims that

“Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may kill you! Therefore its producers feel they must assure free burial services for anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull!

I watched it last night – so either I bravely survived, or this post is coming to you from beyond the tomb…

(It’s actually a lot of fun too. It’s available on youtube, though as usual I don’t know whether legally or not – here’s the link: the decision is yours. It has some nicely scary moments but not gory or gross. Admittedly, the ending made me laugh rather than scream, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so…)

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Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

The Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is another in the British Library’s series of anthologies of vintage crime stories edited by Martin Edwards. This time, the focus is on Continental Europe as the authors take us to casinos in Monte Carlo, catacombs in Rome, castles on the Rhine, in search of the usual murder, mystery and mayhem. To be clear, this is British authors visiting the Continent – I believe there’s a new anthology coming along soon containing stories by non-Brits translated into English, some for the first time, which should be fun.

I found this collection quite variable in quality. Although there were certainly enough 4 and 5 star stories to keep me entertained, there were also several stories that didn’t quite cut it as far as I’m concerned. Partly this is to do with the settings – I freely admit I prefer the traditional English manor house or village, or the foggy streets of London, as the setting for my vintage crime fix. But also it’s because sometimes I felt the setting wasn’t really brought to life terribly well, or there was a touch too much of that British condescension towards all foreigners.

Oddly there were also a couple of stories where the attitude towards (lower-class) women goes well over the out-dated line towards outright misogyny – not a thing I’m normally aware of in vintage crime. Something about going abroad seems to bring out the worst in Brits, I think! I hasten to add that one of these stories was written by a woman, Josephine Bell, who clearly felt that her young female murder victim had brought her fate on herself by her unladylike behaviour in pursuing a man – it actually contains the line “She was asking for it!” The other one was by Michael Gilbert who rounds his story off with the equally astonishing line: “Many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating.” Well, Mr Gilbert, should you ever propose to me, I’ll be sure to give you a sound thrashing before I reply…

There’s also plenty of good stuff, though. There’s the usual mix of well known and more obscure names among the authors, and a nice mix of crimes, from ‘impossible’ mysteries to revenge murders, blackmail, theft, greed and even the occasional haunting. Here’s a little selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most…

The New Catacomb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I know I nearly always select the Conan Doyle story, but that’s because he’s such a great storyteller. This one is a lovely little revenge tale which climaxes in a catacomb in Rome. An interesting story well told, and with some effective touches of horror – make sure you don’t read it if there’s any danger of a power outage…

* * * * *

A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett – While Kitty is showing her new expensive bracelet to another woman, it somehow gets dropped into a canal in Bruges and is lost. Or is it? This is more of a howdunit with a neat solution and has a rather charming little romance thrown in. But the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it reminded me of the sheer quality of Arnold Bennett’s writing – an author I loved when I was young, though for his fiction rather than crime, and had more or less completely forgotten. Must revisit him!

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.

* * * * *

The Room in the Tower by J Jefferson Farjeon – our narrator, a writer, goes to stay in a castle on the Rhine looking for inspiration and atmosphere for his book. Perhaps he gets more atmosphere than he anticipated though when he gets lost in the gloomy corridors and ends up in the haunted tower. The story in this one is a bit weird but Farjeon builds up the tension well and there are some genuinely spooky moments.

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So even though this isn’t my favourite of these anthologies, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the Agatha Christie story…

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

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

War and love in old America…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a young Irish immigrant alone in 1850s America when he meets John Cole, another boy who is destined to be his friend, companion and lover throughout his life. This is the story of their lives and, through them, the story of this period of American history. The boys work for a time as “girls” in a saloon, where they are paid to dance with lonely miners, but when they become too old to be convincing, they go off to join the army. Soon they are involved in the on-going conflicts with the Native Americans and later will be sucked into the Civil War.

When I finished reading this book, I had rather mixed feelings about it – the writing is often wonderful and Barry undoubtedly brings the army scenes to vivid and gory life. But truthfully, my eyebrows rose when the boys dressed up as girls and all the miners treated them as courteously as if they were really girls (not that I imagine they would have treated real saloon girls particularly courteously anyway); and continued to rise throughout all the gender identity stuff with which the book is liberally packed – yes, pun very much intended. I had no idea the early Americans were so politically correct as to accept transvestitism and transsexuality with barely a disapproving comment – how terribly inclusive they were back in those days! It’s suggested more than once that in fact all these rough, tough settlers were secretly enthralled by the idea of men appearing on stage dressed as women, finding them more sexually alluring and exciting than actual women. Hmm! Maybe it really was like that – how would I know? – but I found it pretty unconvincing, regardless of the skill in the story-telling.

What I found much more convincing were the soldiering aspects. The narrator, Thomas McNulty, is an uneducated man, though not unintelligent, and is entirely uninterested in politics, so that we get his view of events from a purely human angle, with no overt polemics. Clearly, Barry himself takes the modern view that what the settlers did to the Native Americans was a horrific atrocity, but he does an excellent job of showing how it may have been viewed differently by those involved; especially those who, like Thomas and John Cole, were at the bottom of the pile in terms of power – only obeying orders, as has been the excuse used for war-crimes for all the long centuries of history. At the time of this story, the struggle between the races has been going on for many years, so that it’s easy for the participants not to look for original causes – instead, each side has suffered tragedies that become excuses for revenge. Barry shows the horrors of battle and massacres in all their cruel and bloody detail and the power of his language makes these passages vivid and often deeply moving. Unfortunately there are so many of these incidents, though, that in the end I found them becoming repetitive and as a result the power diminished as the book progressed.

The sergeant whispers his order like the word of a lover and Hubert Longfield pulls on his string and the gun roars. It is the roar of one hundred lions in a small room. We would gladly put our hands over our ears but our muskets are raised and trained along the line of the wigwams. We are watching for the rat-run of the survivors. There is a stretch of time as long as creation and I can hear the whizzing of the shell, a spinning piercing sound, and then it makes its familiar thud-thud and pulls at the belly of heaven and spreads its mayhem around it, the sides of wigwams torn off like faces, the violent wind of the blast toppling others flat, revealing people in various poses of surprise and horror. There is murder and death immediately. There are maybe thirty tents and just this one shell has made a black burning cancer in the middle.

Barry also does a good job of showing how ordinary soldiers get drawn into wars they don’t necessarily understand nor feel strongly about. Thomas and John Cole end up on the Unionist side during the Civil War, but only because that’s where their commanding officers lead them. There is a feeling that they don’t really know what they’re fighting for and would as easily have fought as rebels had they happened to be in one of the Confederate regiments when the war started. As a political animal, I was rather disappointed that there wasn’t more about the causes of the Civil War but that, I believe, was an intentional decision and worked well in the context of the book.

Sebastian Barry accepting the 2016 Costa Novel Award. It was also longlisted for the 2017 Booker but didn’t make the shortlist.

Not content with dragging current liberal fixations with gender identity into it, Barry also has a shot at making some points about race – specifically, about the position of Native Americans in this new world. Though I found this aspect more credible, I didn’t feel he handled it particularly deftly or in any great depth – it felt to me rather tacked on as though he felt it ought to be there rather than being something he felt strongly about. The main Native American character, Winona, never came to life for me – she seems to be merely a foil about whom a few “points” could be made, and a hook on which to hang the loose plot.

In fact, the characterisation in general didn’t do much for me. At a late stage, Thomas says of John Cole “I never think bad of John, just can’t. I don’t even know his nature. He a perpetual stranger and I delight in that.” [sic] I too felt I still didn’t know his nature, but my delight in that fact was somewhat less profound.

So, given all my criticisms, it’s fair to wonder why I’m still giving the book 3½ stars. Firstly, the prose is mostly excellent, often beautiful, frequently moving, and I’m always more willing to forgive a good deal of other weaknesses if the writing thrills me. Secondly, I half read, half listened to this book, and the narration by Aidan Kelly is quite wonderful. The book is written in what is clearly supposed to be an uneducated Irish voice, with lots of grammatical and punctuation quirks, and can actually feel quite like hard work sometimes on the written page. But Kelly shows how, when read aloud, it sounds absolutely natural, as if an Irishman were indeed verbally telling the tale. Kelly brings out all the beauty in the prose, and the contrasts in humour, horror, sorrow and love within the story. It’s a remarkable performance, and I found myself actually preferring to listen than to read, sometimes going back to listen to a passage I had read to see how Kelly interpreted it.

Overall, therefore, despite finding it quite deeply flawed in terms of credibility and characterisation, my experience of reading/listening to it was an enjoyable one, and so in the end I would recommend it.

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

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Audible UK Link
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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Harking back to the good old days…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov falls foul of the new Bolshevik regime in the Russia of 1922, they show him mercy because he had written a famous revolutionary poem back in 1913. So instead of killing him, they sentence him to permanent house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book is the story of his life there and, through him, of life under communism in the USSR.

The basic tone of the book is light and entertaining. Rostov is a noble from a wealthy land-owning family but on the whole he’s happy to go along with the ideals of the new regime, even if he’s not terribly enamoured of its practicalities. The depth in the book comes from various scenes and anecdotes that shed light on the changing Russia. Rostov occasionally gets nostalgic over Tolstoyan-like memories of winter sleigh-rides in troikas and aristocrat-filled dances. Even in his new life, Rostov is privileged – still rich and the Metropol is still the haunt of the upper echelons, though now these are drawn from the party hierarchy rather than the nobility. Towles uses this to show that life under the communists soon grew to resemble life under the Tsar – only the elite had changed.

Rostov is soon befriended by a little girl, Nina, also resident in the hotel because of her father’s job being attached to the regime. Nina’s character didn’t work so well for me – she often speaks with a vocabulary and level of understanding well beyond her years. However, in reality she’s something of a plot device to give Rostov a connection to the world outside the hotel and an opportunity to pontificate on his philosophy of life.

My initial impressions of the book were very favourable. Towles’ prose is excellent, often intelligent and sparkling with wit. I suspect it’s also full of references to Russian literature that went over my head because I’ve read so little of it, but it isn’t done in such a way that I felt ‘left out’. Unfortunately, as I went on, I began to find it too much of a good thing. I found myself longing for him to say something plain, rather than being relentlessly whimsical or turning every phrase into a beautifully constructed bon mot. This verbal playfulness not only slows the thing to a crawl but verges dangerously on style over substance.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow

My other major issue with the book is that, whether he means to or not (I’m not sure), the impression is that in his desire to ridicule the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system, Towles seems to be giving a rather glowingly nostalgic view of life before the revolution. Since life under tsarism was at least as brutal for most of the population, this is an odd tone to take, especially for an American. Being anti-communist shouldn’t make one pro the tyranny of an absolute monarch, I wouldn’t have thought. Towles seems to favour the aristocracy as being more ‘gentlemanly’ than the Bolsheviks (a real consideration when you’re a starving peasant, I’d imagine). And he does things that seem to suggest that the Count, by birth, deserves special treatment. It’s not that the Count gets special treatment that I found odd – it’s Towles’ implicit approval that jarred.

Amor Towles

As the book goes on, the story becomes gradually less credible, and the device of Rostov being stuck in the hotel begins to feel restrictive of how much Towles can show of the world beyond the doors. The end indulges in yet more nostalgia for the good old days when aristocrats lived in luxury, and we are left sighing for the beautiful estates and days of civilised idleness (that a tiny percentage of pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed at the expense of all the rest).

Perhaps reading the book at a point when I’ve been so steeped in reading about the real history of the tragedies of the Russian people may have coloured my view somewhat, but I think I’d have been just as critical of the book’s apparent message at any other time. It’s very well-written, amusing and entertaining. But it’s too light for its subject matter – too removed from the real world to say anything substantial about life under the Soviets. Towles wants, I think, to make points about denial of individuality, loss of personal freedom, loss of civilisation, but his choice to use a hangover from the old ruling elite makes the politics feel wrong. A few people may have lived privileged, intellectual, art-filled lives before the revolution, but most lived in appalling conditions in both towns and villages, without education, suffering real poverty and hunger. For them, perhaps communism didn’t work out the way they hoped, but I doubt they got overly nostalgic about the past either.

So I have mixed feelings – in the end it felt oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth, but even so I did find it an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part and, on that half-hearted basis, would still recommend it.

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

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The Malice of Waves (Cal McGill 3) by Mark Douglas-Home

The Island of Adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Max Wheeler goes off to spend the night camping on uninhabited Priest’s Island, a storm-tossed island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. His rich father had bought the island as a playground for him a couple of years earlier, much to the annoyance of the townspeople on the neighbouring island of Eilean Dubh, who resented this intrusion into their traditional way of life. Priest’s Island had belonged for generations to a local family who had used it for grazing their sheep. When Max fails to return and no trace of him is found, Ewan, the local lad who would have inherited the island had it not been sold to the Wheelers, quickly becomes the chief suspect. But no evidence has ever been found to allow him to be charged. Five years on, Max’s father has hired Cal McGill, an oceanographer and expert in tides and waves, in a last ditch effort to trace Max’s body. But Cal’s appearance stirs old fears and resentments amongst the townspeople and soon danger stalks more than one inhabitant…

This is the third in the Cal McGill series but the first I’ve read. It worked perfectly well as a standalone and I didn’t feel I was missing anything from not having read the earlier books. The mystery element of the plot is very good – I didn’t get close to the solution but, when it was revealed, felt that it was well within the bounds of credibility. I did think the plotting lacked a little by failing to provide possible alternative explanations though – there weren’t too many red herrings sending me off in the wrong direction. This meant that for quite a long time in the middle I felt the investigation element was rather underdeveloped – neither Cal nor his police officer sidekick Helen Jamieson seemed to be doing very much other than treading water (pun intended) while hoping someone might let something slip. In fact, Cal’s specialism played very little part in the story – always a problem when an amateur detective is given such a specific profession.

However, the depiction of the isolated small town on the edge of nowhere is done very well although, oddly, it lacks any feeling of Scottishness – no dialect, no Scottish traditions, not even Scottish cakes in the tea-shop at the heart of the community. It could as easily have been a small island community set anywhere in the world. But the way they band together when one of their number is threatened feels very realistic, as does the way they all know everything about each other and make allowances for one another’s quirks. The weather plays a large part in the story, and Douglas-Home gives excellent descriptions of the wildness of storms and how quickly these island communities can be cut off from the mainland.

There’s a sub-plot involving an egg-collector – a hobby that’s now illegal in order to protect threatened bird species. I found all the stuff about this added a real level of interest to the story – it feels well-researched and authentic, and sent me off to google images of some of the eggs and nests mentioned. Since some of these collectors go to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of rare eggs, it also allows for some hair-raisingly dangerous exploits and extra suspense (that’s also a pun, but if you want to know why, you’ll have to read the book…).

Mark Douglas-Home
Picture by: Alan Hillyer/Writer Pictures

The writing is very good – third person past tense – hurrah! In this episode we don’t get to know too much about Cal’s life – there’s a little history about his relationship with his father but not much else. However we learn more about Helen Jamieson. She’s a police officer, refreshingly competent and angst-free apart from her apparently unrequited longings for Cal, but she doesn’t allow these to get in the way of having a good professional relationship with him. I actually found myself thinking of her as the central character rather than Cal, so I hope she’s a recurring character in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot, and will happily look out for more in this series. Recommended.

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

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Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Lock up your daughters…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call her Elsie, just because I can) has returned from boarding school for the summer and is excited about getting together with her closest friend, Harriet. The girls have been in trouble in the past, and this is the reason Elsie’s parents sent her away to school. It’s quickly apparent they intend to get into just as much trouble in the future – constantly seeking new experiences they can record in their diary, each experience must top the one before. They are at that age, thirteen or fourteen, when their fantasies run to men and sex. And with Harriet’s encouragement, Elsie has developed a fascination with an unhappily married middle-aged man whom they call ‘the Tsar’. She sets out to tempt him and he is open to being tempted, but we know from the beginning that things aren’t going to end well…

Please God (I could feel the Tsar’s hand on my shoulder) please God, send Harriet. Then I turned to face the tiger. So dingy he was with his sallow skin and thin hair brushed carefully back. For all his elegance, and graceful walk, the delicate way he moved his head, indefinably he lacked youth. Later I was to remember the stillness in the woods, the evening in an avenue of light between the tree trunks, and the Tsar with his hand on my shoulder. I did not know I loved him then, because as Harriet wrote later in the diary, we had a long way to go before we reached the point of love.

This is an intriguing look at the secret lives of adolescent girls, set in the ’50s, at a time when many parents still demanded obedience rather than offering guidance. Both sets of parents care about their daughters in their own ways but clearly have no idea how to handle them, so that Harriet and Elsie are left to navigate their own way through their burgeoning sexuality. The thing that makes the book so disturbing is that their thoughts and behaviour will be recognisable to any woman, since we all went through that difficult stage when our physical selves were maturing far more rapidly than our emotional selves. It’s also a reminder of how female friendships at that age can become obsessively close, to a point where they can take precedence over all other relationships, even family, and can develop their own secret codes of communication and behaviour. In the end, Harriet and Elsie go much further along the path of acting out their fantasies than most of us did (I hope!), but their first steps feel like ones any one of us might have taken, perhaps with similar consequences.

The book was famously inspired by the case in New Zealand where two teenage girls murdered the mother of one of them, but the story isn’t a slavish copy of that, so knowing the original case is not a spoiler for the book. It was also apparently Bainbridge’s first novel, though it was rejected at the time, and was only published much later once she had become an established name.

I haven’t read any of her later books, so can’t compare the quality of the writing, but I felt this one was a little patchy. Some of the writing is wonderful, but for such a short novel I still found the pacing rather slow, finding myself wishing it would hurry up and get to where it was going. Perhaps this was because I had more or less gathered the major points of the plot from the many, many reviews I’ve read of it, or perhaps it was because the end was so blatantly foreshadowed at the beginning – I’m not sure.

I had tried to explain to my mother that it was awful to go so early; that one looked so silly when the field was full of small children. I could not explain that when it was dark a new dignity would transform the fair into an oasis of excitement, so that it became a place of mystery and delight; peopled with soldiers from the camp and orange-faced girls wearing head scarves, who in strange regimented lines would sway back and forth across the field, facing each other defiantly, exchanging no words, bright-eyed under the needle stars. I could not explain how all at once the lines would meet and mingle performing a complicated rite of selection; orange girls and soldier boys pairing off slowly to drift to the far end of the field and struggle under the hedges filled with blackberries.

The characterisation of both girls is somewhat vague, but I felt that fitted well with the first-person narration. Elsie’s obsession with Harriet and desire to impress her is portrayed excellently, but Harriet herself remains something of an enigma because we only have Elsie’s account to go on. Elsie also hints that she, Elsie, is the submissive one in the relationship, but sometimes the reader is made to wonder if this is a true representation of their friendship, or some kind of deflection so that Elsie should be seen as the more innocent of the two.

Beryl Bainbridge

Times change and attitudes change with them. It may be harder for a modern reader, having lived through all the horror stories about paedophiles and grooming, to feel as sympathetic towards the Tsar as I suspect a reader was expected to feel when the book was published in the ’70s. It’s also less politically correct (though no less true) to see young teenage girls as potential temptresses, using their sexuality as a game, only half innocently, testing their new-found power over men. All of that rang true for me, though, however much we like to gloss over the sometimes dark complexities of teenage sexuality these days.

So while I wasn’t quite as blown away by this as I’d hoped, I think it’s a fine example of a story that becomes very dark while still retaining a chilling level of credibility. Recommended, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Bainbridge’s work.

Amazon UK Link
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Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin

The knowledge of all sums…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few years ago, Keith Devlin published The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, which combined a biography of the famous mathematician with an explanation of what his fame rests on. This book is the story of researching and writing that book, also telling the little that is known about Fibonacci’s life and describing his arithmetical legacy.

It’s a strange little book. It reminded me of being left with bits of leftover wool after knitting an elaborate sweater and deciding to use them to make a matching scarf. It feels like an amalgam of all the things Devlin would have liked to have included in his first book, but didn’t think quite fitted. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Fibonacci, I found it reasonably interesting since it gave me the basics about his achievements, but I’m not sure of how much interest it would hold for anyone who already knows about him, or indeed, who has read Devlin’s earlier book. Devlin starts with an introduction in which he describes his own career as an “expositor” of math in print and on radio. He tell us he is known as the Math Guy in America (hence the misspelling of maths throughout 😉 ). This is partly why he is so interested in Fibonacci, since he too was an early expositor of arithmetic.

Example: 6X + Y = Z
If X = chocolate truffles and Y = FF, then find Z. Answer below.

Real name, Leonardo of Pisa, (Fibonacci was a nickname given to him by a much later mathematician), his fame rests mainly on his major work, Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation), which explained the Hindu-Arabic number system (the use of numerals 1-9). Prior to this, arithmetic in the west had relied on an elaborate finger-counting system or the use of the abacus, both of which required a high level of skill. The system of using numerals was easier to learn and also provided a written record, hence an audit trail. Although Leonardo was not the first man to introduce this system to Europe, his book appeared just at a point where trade was about to take off exponentially in the region, so became hugely important and influential. Leonardo also wrote a follow-up book that included many worked practical examples, so that it could be used as a basis for learning how to use arithmetic even by people who weren’t interested in understanding the underlying principles. This was hand-copied thousands of times and was translated into many different regional languages and with the examples converted into local currencies, making it the most important text for spreading the use of arithmetic throughout Europe and beyond.

Monument of Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci), by Giovanni Paganucci, completed in 1863, in the Camposanto di Pisa

Devlin intersperses this information about Fibonacci with descriptions of how he, Devlin, went about researching his earlier book. This is sometimes interesting – Devlin writes well when, for example, he re-imagines the Pisa of Leonardo’s time: a trading hub, with sea-transported goods being brought into the town via the river Arno. But there are also parts where my interest level fell away almost entirely – for example, when he gives immensely detailed accounts of visits to libraries to look at ancient manuscripts, and includes blow-by-blow accounts of conversations with librarians about opening times, etc. Leonardo’s work was almost forgotten for centuries till a few researchers brought him back to prominence, and Devlin gives the story of them and their researches too. Again, these accounts varied in interest level, but overall I felt Devlin was trying too hard to make it seem more exciting than it either was or, indeed, needed to be.

Keith Devlin

When it comes to the arithmetical stuff, Devlin explains things simply enough for my decidedly non-mathematical brain to cope with. He gives some of Leonardo’s worked examples, which taught me two things: 1) I’ve forgotten what little algebra I ever knew and 2) thank goodness for Excel. However, I was pleased to see I can still usually get to the right answer eventually with my own elaborate finger-counting method (which also involves sticking out the tip of my tongue – a widely-recognised technique which oddly both Fibonacci and Devlin overlook), so this will undoubtedly be a handy skill after the apocalypse…

In the end, I suspect I might have been better reading Devlin’s earlier book rather than this one – the meat of the story for me was Leonardo’s achievements, and the rest felt a little extraneous. However, I certainly got enough out of it to make it a worthwhile and informative read overall, and the other aspects of it may appeal more to people who are intrigued to see how a biographer goes about his research process.

Answer: Z = 0
(*throws out empty chocolate box*)

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

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Book 4 of 20

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Trouble at Totleigh Towers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When told that Stiffy Byng requires his presence at Totleigh Towers to perform a little task for her, Bertie issues a strong nolle prosequi. This young menace to society, Stiffy, while undoubtedly easy on the eye, is well known for landing her friends in hot water up to their chins. Plus Totleigh Towers is the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett who, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, is convinced that Bertie is a habitual thief. Only Jeeves’ brilliance in the past has prevented Bertie from serving time at His Majesty’s pleasure, and Bertie has no desire to risk another encounter with Sir Watkyn. But storm clouds are gathering. There is a rift in the lute of love between Madeline, daughter of Sir Watkyn, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, keeper of newts, over the issue of steak pies – Gussie would like to eat them while Madeline is insisting on him sticking to a vegetarian diet. In the past, Madeline has made it clear that, should she find it necessary to return Gussie to store, Bertie will be expected to fill the vacancy for prospective bridegroom. Madeline, as readers will recall, believes that every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way, so one can readily understand why Bertie is so keen to see Madeline and Gussie reconciled. The only way to make sure of it is to go to Totleigh Towers after all…

….‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘as always, you have found the way. I’ll wire Miss Bassett and ask if I can come, and I’ll wire Aunt Dahlia that I can’t give her lunch as I’m leaving town, and I’ll tell Stiffy that whatever she has in mind she gets no service and co-operation from me. Yes, Jeeves, you’ve hit it! I’ll go to Totleigh, though the flesh creeps at the prospect. Pop Bassett will be there, Spode will be there, Stiffy will be there, the dog Bartholomew will be there. It makes one wonder why so much fuss has been made about those half-a-league half-a-league half-a-league-onward bimbos who rode into the Valley of Death. They weren’t going to find Pop Bassett at the other end. Ah well, let us hope for the best.’
….‘The only course to pursue, sir.’
….‘Stiff upper lip, Jeeves, what?’
….‘Indubitably, sir. That, if I may say so, is the spirit.’

PG Wodehouse

This is one of Wodehouse’s later novels, written in 1963 when he was in his eighties. While it’s still a lot of fun with all of his trademark lightness and charm, it doesn’t really compare to the books he was writing at his peak. In fact, the plot is largely a re-hash of elements that have appeared in previous books – Stiffy and the favour, stealing objets d’art from Sir Watkyn, Spode threatening to break the neck of anyone who upsets Madeline, etc., – and Wodehouse frequently refers back to those earlier episodes, going over what happened in them with the pretext of bringing new readers up to date. Wodehouse always carried plot elements and jokes from book to book, but each time changing them enough so that they achieved a feeling of being both fresh and familiar at the same time, like variations on a theme – the ultimate comfort reading, in fact. But in this one it feels more like repetition than variation. I hesitate to use the word stale – Wodehouse could never be that – but certainly not straight from the oven. However, I suspect that might only be obvious to people who have a good familiarity with the earlier Jeeves books.

….She was heading for the piano, and something told me that it was her intention to sing old folk songs, a pastime to which, as I have indicated, she devoted not a little of her leisure. She was particularly given to indulgence in this nuisance when her soul had been undergoing an upheaval and required soothing, as of course it probably did at this juncture.
….
My fears were realized. She sang two in rapid succession, and the thought that this sort of thing would be a permanent feature of our married life chilled me to the core.

Jonathan Cecil

There are some new elements in it, though, which lift it and make it still an enjoyable read . For example, Major Plank is a retired bastion of the Empire, giving Wodehouse the opportunity to poke some fun at the British attitudes to its colonies at the time – though the book was written in the ’60s, it’s set in the ’30s, I’d say. And, while Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia doesn’t appear in person, we have the fun of some of her phone conversations with her much-loved but exasperating nephew.

I listened to the audiobook version with Jonathan Cecil narrating and, as always, he does an excellent job, giving distinct voices to all the different characters and doing an excellent Bertie. Even though this isn’t one of the all-time bests, it’s still great, mood-enhancing entertainment, as are all of the Jeeves books.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Dysfunctional family…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter to the gods to gain their support for his war, his wife Clytemnestra plots a bloody and horrific revenge. In her grief and rage, she doesn’t consider the profound effects her actions will have on her surviving children – Electra, silently watching as her mother finds herself at the mercy of her lover and fellow conspirator, Aegisthus; and young Orestes, exiled from his home and facing many dangers as he fights for survival.

This retelling of the Greek tragedy is given in three voices. Clytemnestra comes first and it’s through her eyes, the eyes of a mother, that we see Agamemnon’s trickery and the horror of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Tóibín shows us the full brutality of both Agamemnon’s act and Clytemnestra’s revenge in all their blood-soaked horror. Clytemnestra tells us what she thought, said, did, but it’s in the gaps between that the reader learns how she felt – helpless in the face of a savagery she shares. Agamemnon’s murder is frighteningly well done, but then Clytemnestra finds herself not the mistress but the property of Aegisthus, a man revealed as a cold and cruel tyrant.

None of us who had travelled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.

The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods – oh yes, the gods! – seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.

On the night of the murder, Orestes is kidnapped and held with the sons of other important men, all hostages to ensure their families’ compliance with the new regime. After some time, Orestes falls under the influence of Leander, who persuades him to escape along with a third boy, Mitros. Orestes’ section tells of the boys’ lives as they find ways to survive until they reach manhood. Again, there are some scenes of brutality but there is also love in this section as the boys, separated from their families, create a kind of new family of their own.

I found these first two sections excellent – Clytemnestra’s full of bitterness and rage, Orestes’ softer and quieter despite the episodes of violence. Unfortunately, after that point the book fell away for me rather. The third section is seen from Electra’s point of view. Ignored by her mother and grieving her father, Electra has inherited the family desire for revenge, but somehow I didn’t find this as convincing as Clytemnestra’s vengefulness. And when Orestes returns as a man, I fear I found him rather pale and insipid. Tóibín’s writing is always rather understated when it comes to emotions, and that usually works wonderfully for me – his descriptions of the actions and thoughts of his characters is enough to allow me to feel I understand the emotions that are driving them without Tóibín having to spell them out. And that’s how I felt about Clytemnestra and the younger Orestes. But with Electra and the older Orestes, the understatement is less successful, leaving me struggling to empathise with either.

Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.

They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

Tóibín’s writing is excellent as always, especially powerful when showing the brutality in the earlier passages. But I found the latter half lacked that power and that, added to my lack of sympathy for the younger characters, meant I was left rather unmoved by their eventual fates. Of course, it’s an essential read for any fan of Tóibín, and it’s quite probable that my slight disappointment is largely caused by my overly high expectations. But it’s not one I would recommend as an introduction to his work – for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of many of his earlier books.

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

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore

An everyday story of country folk…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Ridd’s father is robbed and murdered by the infamous Doone clan, this should make young John their blood enemy. Instead, he falls in love with Lorna, the beautiful young granddaughter of Sir Ensor, the head of the Doones. Because, massive though he is and with a reputation throughout Devon and Somerset as a great wrestler, at heart John is a lover, not a fighter. Unless you threaten the people he loves…

After an exceptionally tedious first quarter, during which I many times considered abandoning the book, I gradually grew to quite enjoy it. Biographical fiction of this era tends to include the early years of the subject, meaning it’s often a long time before the story gets properly underway. Sometimes this works, if the writer fills it with interesting stuff – witness David Copperfield and his time living with the Micawbers. Other times it’s less successful, and I found John’s early life dragged, with very little incident to break up the admittedly excellent descriptions of rural life. The only real event of note is his accidental meeting with the child Lorna, whose infant beauty even then arouses his boyish fancy.

Eventually, however, John reaches manhood and, remembering the little girl, sets out to sneak into the Doone stronghold to find her again. The Doones are a gang of robbers and murderers living in a nearby valley, headed by Sir Ensor, a nobleman dispossessed of his land and fortune over a dispute between his family and the King. Although they terrorise the countryside, the locals seem to feel some strange kind of pride over them, as if they lend an air almost of glamour to the area. Which seems a little odd, since apart from murdering and robbing the men, they have an unfortunate habit of raping girls and women, and stealing them away from their families to force them into marrying the Doone men, who are not averse to a bit of polygamy. Call me old-fashioned, but the glamour escaped me…

By the side of the stream she was coming to me, even among the primroses, as if she loved them all; and every flower looked the brighter, as her eyes were on them, I could not see what her face was, my heart so awoke and trembled; only that her hair was flowing from a wreath of white violets, and the grace of her coming was like the appearance of the first wind-flower. The pale gleam over the western cliffs threw a shadow of light behind her, as if the sun were lingering. Never do I see that light from the closing of the west, even in these my aged days, without thinking of her. Ah me, if it comes to that, what do I see of earth or heaven, without thinking of her?

Having now fallen hopelessly in love with the lovely Lorna, John is conflicted about the Doones – he sees that they are bad, but doesn’t want to go against them for love of Lorna. Though remarkably, having been brought up by this horrid crew, Lorna has turned out sweet and moral and pure, and apart from old Sir Ensor whom she loves, has no high opinion of them; especially since she is being put under pressure to marry the nastiest of them all – the evil Carver Doone. (Cue booing and hissing…) Eventually, there will have to be a showdown, between the men of Exmoor and the Doones, and between John and Carver.

The major problem with the book is that it is incredibly slow. The actual plot is pretty underdeveloped – we are told about how horrible the Doones are rather than seeing it for ourselves. In fact, considering their central role, they appear very rarely. There’s a sort of detour into the politics of the time – the anti-monarchist plots and the Monmouth rebellion – but Blackmore assumes the reader’s familiarity with these events so doesn’t explain them, which left me heading off to wikipedia on more than one occasion. I don’t blame him for my ignorance, but nonetheless I always feel historical fiction should give enough background to allow the reader to understand what’s going on. There’s also a lengthy section where John is in London, where I swear nothing at all happens – nothing! John mentions afterwards that he met the King three times, but clearly this wasn’t important enough to show us as it occurred. Blackmore gives no feeling of what London may have been like in the period, beyond some discussion of bedbugs in various rooming-houses where John stayed.

Then the woods arose in folds, like drapery of awakened mountains, stately with a depth of awe, and memory of the tempests. Autumn’s mellow hand was on them, as they owned already, touched with gold, and red, and olive; and their joy towards the sun was less to a bridegroom than a father.

Yet before the floating impress of the woods could clear itself, suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose; according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow; every flower, and bud, and bird, had a fluttering sense of them; and all the flashing of God’s gaze merged into soft beneficence.

Where the book does shine, though, is in its depiction of rural life. John loves his life as a farmer and through his eyes we see nature in all her kindness and cruelty. The harsh and bitter winter of 1683 is brilliantly depicted: weeks of deep snow and freezing fog followed by flooding when the thaw finally arrives. We are shown the hardships undergone by the men trying to save the farm animals stranded in the snow-covered fields, and learn of the toll, emotional and financial, as so many of the animals are lost.

The strange (to urban eyes) mix of affection and pragmatism the farmers have for their animals is beautifully described, making me long for those earlier times when farming seemed somehow less cruel, more natural, than our soulless meat production factories of today. We are shown the dependence of the community on abundant harvests and the way they come together first to bring in the crops and then to celebrate. The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.

There is also a good deal of stuff about the place of women in this society, which I’m fairly sure is meant to be tongue-in-cheek humorous rather than hideously sexist, though sometimes the dividing line is so faint as to be invisible. Certainly John is transparent enough to let us see that Lorna’s beauty of face and figure is as important to him as any loveliness of soul she may possess…

“What are you doing here, Annie?” I inquired rather sternly, being vexed with her for having gone so very near to frighten me.

“Nothing at all,” said our Annie shortly. And indeed it was truth enough for a woman. Not that I dare to believe that women are such liars as men say: only that I mean they often see things round the corner, and know not which is which of it. And indeed I never have known a woman (though right enough in their meaning) purely and perfectly true and transparent, except only my Lorna; and even so, I might not have loved her, if she had been ugly.

But there are also lovely sections, especially between John and his sister Annie, where John thinks he is showing his masculine superiority while in fact Annie is quietly guiding him and winding him round her feminine little finger. Much of John’s interactions with the many females in his life left me quietly chuckling, and suspecting that the women were chuckling too behind his back, but affectionately.

As the book nears its conclusion, the pace thankfully picks up and there are some fine dramatic scenes to end on. Is it a happy-ever-after or a tear-jerking tragedy though? Well, if you want to know the answer to that question, I guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself…

Book 10 of 90

Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

Digging up the truth…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…

…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.

As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )

On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.

The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.

Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.

So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.

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

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The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

I, said the sparrow, with my little bow and arrow…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

The people who live in Regency Square in Cheltenham form a little community set somewhat apart from the rest of the town. They all socialise with each other, and there are all the rivalries and grievances that grow up in any group over time. So when someone shoots Captain Cotton with an arrow to the head through the open window of a neighbour’s house, there are plenty of suspects, since many of the residents are members of the local archery club, and Captain Cotton had annoyed several of his neighbours in one way or another. Unfortunately for the murderer, Superintendent Meredith is visiting a friend in the square at the time, and the local police quickly enlist his help…

…which is a wonder really, since on the basis of this he’s not terribly good at his job! Mind you, he’s better than the local chap, who seems almost entirely clueless. Things were different back then, of course, as can be seen when the police pick up the body, carry it across the square, and leave it unattended on the captain’s own bed till the inquest. The thing is that there’s a major plot point which is so blindingly obvious that the biggest mystery in the book is that it doesn’t even occur to the police till the book is nearly over – I won’t specify for fear of spoilers, even though I defy anyone not to spot it. And it’s not the only easy to spot clue – easy for the reader, that is, but seemingly impenetrable to our dogged but hopeless detectives. On the other hand, Meredith seems amazingly, almost supernaturally, perceptive when it comes to less important clues, making astounding leaps of intuition to arrive at the truth. The powers-that-be keep threatening to hand the whole thing over to the Yard, and I really felt they should do this pronto – intriguingly Meredith’s own superiors seemed willing to leave him seconded to the Cheltenham force for as long as possible necessary. One could see why…

However, there’s still a lot to like in the book. The characterisations of the various residents of the square are well done, even if they tend to be a little stereotyped. This is a typically upper middle class square, full of bankers and retired army officers and elderly spinsters. Some of the people are just what they seem, but some have secrets hidden behind their respectable façades which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Bude creates the setting well and some of the secrets give it a slightly darker tone than it feels as if it’s going to have at first. And there’s lots of humour in it too, sometimes a bit clunky like when the local Inspector uses his young subordinate as the butt of his stupidity jokes (ironic, given the profundity of his own intellectual lapses!), but at other times light and fun, like the two elderly sisters and their dismay at not really knowing the correct etiquette for dealing with a murder investigation. The detectives get there in the end, of course, but more by luck than anything else.

Not one of the better of these British Library Crime Classics, in truth. I found it dragged quite a bit, mainly because it took the police so long to realise things that had been obvious for chapters. The quality of the writing and characterisation lifted it, but the whole detection aspect lacked any feeling of authenticity for me, and the murder method, while quite fun, struck me as overly contrived. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Bude I’ve read, Death on the Riviera, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable read overall. So a fairly half-hearted recommendation for this one, I’m afraid.

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

Can’t find an author pic, so you’ll just have to make do with this instead…

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The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Seeds of evil…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brothers Neil and Calum work as foresters in Ardmore in the Scottish highlands. Calum is a simple-minded but happy soul, his twisted, hunched back making him clumsy on the ground, but once he is climbing in his beloved trees he is agile and sure-footed. Neil, the older brother, has devoted his life to looking after Calum, resenting every slight and insult that’s been directed at him far more than Calum himself. Now they have been sent to the estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell to gather cones from the trees in her woods, prior to the woods being chopped down as part of the war effort.

But Lady Runcie-Campbell’s gamekeeper, Duror, has taken a strong dislike to them, especially to Calum. Partly this is because Calum’s soft heart has led him to free animals caught in Duror’s traps, but mainly it’s an irrational horror of the stunted body and mind of the man, mirroring Duror’s own stunted life, which has turned out so differently from what he expected. Duror’s young wife whom he loved was struck by an unspecified illness three years after they wed, leaving her bedridden and obese. Now, twenty years on, she is needy and whiny, mainly because Duror makes it so plain that he can’t bear to spend time in her company. Duror has buried deep within himself his resentment at the unfairness of his life, as he sees it, but something about the little hunchback Calum has triggered his pent-up anger, turning him into a malevolent, bullying monster.

Hidden among the spruces at the edge of the ride, near enough to catch the smell of larch off the cones and to be struck by some of those thrown, stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.

The Second World War is happening in the background, so that this small community is missing young men. Lady Runcie-Campbell is only in charge because her husband is away in the army, and obviously, being a woman, she’s not very good at man management. (Well, it was written in 1955.) She’d prefer not to know about anything that might disrupt her perfect lifestyle or prick her conscience, like the atrocious conditions the cone-gatherers are expected to live in, so leaves everything she can up to Duror. She is always striving to become a better Christian and wants her children to grow up with true Christian values. On the other hand, she has been tasked by her husband to make sure their son grows up to be a true aristocrat, confident in his superior breeding and properly haughty to the hoi-polloi. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s own upbringing means she sees no problem in reconciling these things, but her son shows an irritating capacity to feel sympathy for the people she bullies and demeans.

The still is from a BBC Bitesize production for use in schools as a teaching aid.

As a Scottish classic, I tried hard to love this book, but failed, though I certainly didn’t hate it either. It has an air of impending doom from the first pages, a tragedy so well signalled that the end is never really in doubt. This can work, so long as the journey is interesting enough. Here, while the writing is skilled and often very powerful, the characters never came to life for me, each feeling like a representative of an aspect of humanity that Jenkins wanted to show, rather than a truly rounded individual. It comments a little on the changing social order of the time, when the lower classes were no longer prepared to accept without criticism the inequality in society, nor to obey without question the orders of their social superiors. But it does it in a way that I found rather obvious, without nuance. There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the direct comparison it draws between Duror’s irrational hatred of the hunchbacked Calum and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. I feel the author should sometimes leave the reader to do some of the work.

He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.

Robin Jenkins

Elsewhere, religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains. There’s an odd episode in the middle when the brothers visit the nearby town, where everyone is preternaturally nice to them, in too stark contrast to the evil that surrounds them in the woods. It reminded me a little in tone of Of Mice and Men – the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn to bathos if an author isn’t careful. Jenkins narrowly avoids bathos, but in the process he also loses the emotionalism, the light and shade, that might have lifted this book above being a simple allegory of good and evil. My lack of belief in the characters as people meant that the long-anticipated tragic ending left me disappointingly unmoved, despite my admiration for the prose.

Book 7 of 90

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The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

Hidden behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.

The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.

The current sad little nutter tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:

Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.

So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.

So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.

Picture credit: Reuters
When the Great Leader says clap, you clap…

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

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