Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

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

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

The quality of sunlight…

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When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna. The book tells the story of their love, and we know from the beginning that it ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s also an intense character study of Tommaso whom we come to know perhaps better than he knows himself. And it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents.

The story is slow to unfold, with many digressions into Tommaso’s memories of his childhood. But these are interesting in themselves for what they tell us about the way of life in this quiet, tradition-bound area and all serve to add depth to our understanding of his character. He is not entirely likeable, but the telling of his story so many years later seems to allow him to reassess the events and his reaction to them, so that he appears to grow in self-awareness as the book progresses. The falling in love aspect is done beautifully, with that intensity which only happens with early first love, and although some of the later events might have seemed extreme had they been placed in a contemporary setting, Vescina’s careful re-creation of this moment in the culture, so recent and yet so rooted in the traditions of the past, make them entirely credible.

Ostuni, Puglia

There were a couple of weaknesses for me, although minor. The framing device of Tommaso telling his story to the PI led to some occasional clunkiness in the use of second person as Tommaso occasionally breaks off from his narrative to talk to his interlocutor, whose questions and remarks are relayed to the reader only second-hand through Tommaso’s responses. However this only happens for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of an occasional chapter, so it doesn’t break the flow too much. There is a section after the events of the summer and before the final dénouement where we learn of Tommaso’s life between then and now, and, while the quality of the writing still makes this very readable, I felt it was too long and added very little to the story, merely delaying the ending.

However, neither of these significantly impacted my enjoyment of the book. The story and characters kept me fully absorbed as I read this book over one long, lazy day and Vescina’s wonderful descriptive writing transported me to Puglia – a place I have never visited in real life but now feel I can visualise as if from actual memories. I was attracted to the book partly because Puglia is one of the places on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and I couldn’t have picked a better one. From the narrow, winding streets in the medieval Old Town of Ostuni to the groves of fig and olive trees, from the quality of the sunlight to the smell of the local tomatoes, from the colours of the buildings to the ingredients of the traditional meals – everything is given a lush richness that engages all the senses. Vescina also has a great sense of the history of the region – her own birthplace – and has the skill to dole out her knowledge sparingly as an integral part of the story.

The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this book, becoming totally immersed in both story and place, and was reluctant to leave Puglia when it ended. It’s Vescina’s début, but is written with a sure-footedness and level of assurance that many a more experienced writer might envy. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to reading more from this gifted storyteller in the future.

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

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Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

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When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

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Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

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This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

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

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Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Or maybe the sons…

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The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick, also known as the Palatinate. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is ostensibly about the four daughters who survived their childhood years – Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia.

Did you notice that sneaky word “ostensibly”? In fact, the book is much more about the kings and sons than it is about queens and daughters. (Feminists may wish to look away for the next couple of sentences.) This is completely understandable since, at that period as in so much of history, women generally played a very small role in events, limited as often as not to being pawns in the diplomatic marriage market. There’s no doubt Elizabeth’s sons led much more interesting lives than her daughters, especially since only two of the girls married, and one of those died almost immediately afterwards. (You can come back now.) So I’m not complaining about the fact that Goldstone spent far more time with the men than the women – I’m merely pointing out that the title is a little misleading and the book may therefore set up false expectations in the prospective reader.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. The history can sometimes feel a little superficial – she is trying to cover a lengthy and complicated period in a relatively compact book – but it’s fun, and the characterisation is great. I use the word ‘characterisation’ intentionally, because she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it. I feel that all sounds a little dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be. There’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

The first few chapters give a biography of Elizabeth (the Winter Queen) and then in the latter two-thirds or so of the book, Goldstone moves on to the daughters, rotating through them, giving them each a chapter in turn. So in total each daughter merits around four chapters. You can tell from this that we largely get a broad overview of their lives rather than the detailed minutiae that tends to appear in a single subject biography. Given the fact that in reality none of the women lived particularly exciting or historically significant lives, I felt this was plenty.

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many, many children in various allegorical poses.

But in fact, most of the chapters start with one of the daughters and then promptly swing away to her brother, husband, suitor or male friend. We follow a couple of the sons to England where they were involved in the events leading up to and following the execution of Charles I. Through Elizabeth, we spend some time in the company of her friend and teacher Descartes. Henrietta Maria married but then died too young to have much of a story to leave, poor thing. Through Louise, a skilled painter in her own right, we learn something about the artistic movements of the time. And through Sophia, the one who married and lived, we are taken into the politics of succession – the various manoeuvrings of those in power to gain territory through war, alliance and inheritance, again told mostly through the men’s stories.

Along the way, Goldstone brings the characters, male and female, to life by including their own words from correspondence and journals and by telling anecdotes about them. This gives a great and, I assume, accurate feel for their different personalities, and Goldstone delves back into their childhoods to show how their early experiences helped to mould them into the women (or men) they became. On the whole, the daughters seemed to be a pragmatic bunch. The various religious shenanigans in Europe meant that there was a limited pool of suitable matches for impoverished Protestant princesses, so those who didn’t marry took religious orders – one converting to Catholicism to do so. Sophia was the one who interested me most, not only because her life as a daughter, wife and mother of powerful men meant that she was more involved in events, but because she loved to write and had a witty, acerbic style that gave a real feeling for her and for the people she somewhat wickedly observed.

Nancy Goldstone

Overall, I enjoyed this book. That particular period of history is complicated by all the religious squabbling and ever-shifting allegiances so my eyes glazed over from time to time, but Goldstone does an excellent job of simplifying it and helping the reader through the maze. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and would mention that her footnotes are not to be glossed over – often the best humour in the book is hidden in them. The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and the daughters weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, on the whole, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the stories of the sons, fathers and husbands. Next time though, I’d hope Goldstone could find women who were more interesting in their own right (as she did with Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois in her previous book The Rival Queens) or not set up false expectations in her title. Not every book has to have a feminist angle, especially when there isn’t one, and The Children of the Winter Queen would have worked just as well, I feel. Recommended.

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

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The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

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One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

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

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Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

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Raven Black (Shetland 1) by Ann Cleeves

An excellent start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few days after New Year, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found strangled in the snow in the middle of a field. The islanders immediately jump to the conclusion that she was killed by Magnus Tait, an elderly loner who has long been convicted in the public mind of the murder of another girl several years earlier. That child disappeared and her body was never found, and no evidence was found to allow the police to charge Magnus with the crime, but ever since the islanders have kept their children well away from him. Catherine Ross was an outsider, though, her father having brought her to the island just recently, after the death of her mother. And Catherine was interested in people, and perhaps a little cruel sometimes. She was known to have been in Magnus’ company a couple of times, so his guilt seems certain. But Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, another outsider, isn’t convinced…

This is the first novel in Cleeves’ Shetland series, the books behind the successful TV series of the same name. She captures the atmosphere of the island beautifully – the mixture of that feeling of claustrophobia where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and the isolation of the small villages outside the main harbour town. She also shows how old traditions remain side by side with the increasing modernisation of life, as the islanders prepare for the big annual festival of Up Helly Aa; perhaps not as ancient a festival as some like to believe, but one that has become a part of life and a major tourist attraction over the years.

The plotting is excellent, as Perez tries to work out whether the two cases are linked or separate. Being in the third person past tense, the reader is allowed to see the story develop from a variety of perspectives, including Perez himself as he investigates, Magnus Tait as he waits knowing that the finger of suspicion will be pointed in his direction, and Sally, daughter of a teacher at the local school and Catherine’s best friend. This lets us see events from different angles, gradually giving a rounder picture of the victim and the various suspects.

Up Helly Aa – when the Shetlanders celebrate their Viking connections by burning a longboat…
Photo by David Gifford

Magnus is very well done – he is a man with what we’d probably call learning difficulties, able to function but well aware that he lacks social skills. Cleeves does a great job of making the reader find him both creepy and rather sad at the same time. Through Sally’s eyes we see the life of youngsters on the island, socially and at school. She and Catherine were drawn together mainly by being treated as outsiders – Catherine because she has newly arrived on the island, and Sally because she’s the daughter of a rather unpopular teacher.

Perez’ character is only revealed to certain extent in this opening novel, leaving plenty of room for development in later instalments. He’s from Fair Isle, an even smaller, more remote community, and is under pressure from his parents to return there. The break-up of his marriage has left him unsure of what he wants in life, but he’s no angst-ridden maverick. He’s a thoughtful, fair officer who tries hard not to be swayed by popular opinion but instead to look to the facts of the case. In this one, he finds himself becoming attracted to a young woman, Fran, another incomer, who found Catherine’s body, and this budding relationship allows us to see his human, off-duty side.

Ann Cleeves

There are plenty of other characters – parents, other pupils, boyfriends and so on – to provide a wide pool of suspects and witnesses, and these are all drawn equally believably although with a little less depth. Late on, I had an inkling about how one aspect of the story was going to play out, but I didn’t get close to the main solution. When it came though, I found it both credible and satisfying.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent start to the series and am keen to read more. I’m also happy to have finally broken my duck with this well-known and much loved author, and am now equally eager to read her Vera Stanhope novels. If someone as successful as Ann Cleeves actually needs my recommendation, then she most certainly has it!

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The human face of the Revolution…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.

….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.

Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.

….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.

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The Red House Mystery by AA Milne

Pleasingly devious…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Antony Gillingham receives a letter from his old friend, Bill Beverley, saying that Bill is currently visiting at Red House, Antony decides to pop along since he’s in the neighbourhood. But he arrives just as a shot has been fired, to find one of the country house’s residents, Cayley, banging frantically on the locked living-room door. Two men had entered the room – the house’s owner Mark Ablett, and his brother, Robert, a ne’er-do-well just returned from Australia. Now Robert lies dead on the living-room floor, and Mark has disappeared…

….“Of course it’s very hampering being a detective, when you don’t know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you’re doing detection, and you can’t have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper enquiries; and, in short, when you’re doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way.”

Well, this was a lot of fun! It’s very well written, with lots of humour and two very likeable protagonists in Antony and Bill. Antony is a man of means but with an interest in human nature. So rather than living the life of the idle rich, he has worked in a variety of roles, from shop-keeping to waiting. Now he decides to try his hand at amateur detection. He’s helped by having the ability to record anything he observes with his subconscious mind and then to retrieve those observations later at will. Bill is a pleasant young man, not unintelligent but without his friend’s perceptiveness. He proves to be a loyal and faithful sidekick, though, who cheerfully plays Watson to Antony’s Holmes – Milne openly and affectionately uses Holmes and Watson as a running joke between his two amateur ‘tecs.

….“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
….“Watson?”
….“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
….“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”

Challenge details:
Book: 17
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1922

The plot is in the nature of a locked room mystery, though not in terms of how anyone could have got in or out. The mystery is in working out what happened inside the room and why Mark has apparently run off. There is (of course) a house party at the time of the murder, so that there are plenty of people to be witnesses and/or suspects. Cayley, the man who was banging on the door as Antony arrived, is Mark Ablett’s young cousin, whose education Mark had paid for. Cayley now lives with him and fulfills the functions of a secretary and general man of business for Mark. No-one really knows what it is that the victim Robert did all those years ago that resulted in him being sent off to Australia to avoid scandal, nor why he has suddenly returned. There are a couple of young women to provide love interests or possibly motives. The domestic staff add to the humour, with Milne showing just a touch of Golden Age snobbery but not enough to spoil the fun. And secret tunnels! Really every book should have secret tunnels, I think, don’t you?

….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

AA Milne

Antony uses his knowledge of human nature and his observational skills to spot little inconsistencies in the stories of the other occupants of the house to gradually uncover the truth. It’s very well plotted – I did have a kind of idea of part of the how of it all, but was nicely baffled by the why. And I loved Antony and Bill as a team. My only disappointment is that Milne never wrote another mystery novel – I feel they’d have made the basis of a great detective duo series. But at least we have this book, and happily it’s available for download from wikisource. Highly recommended for the next time you want something that’s well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining!

Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

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Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poirot is on a little holiday in Egypt, and his poor unsuspecting fellow travellers have no idea that this means one of them, at least, will surely be murdered before the trip is over. As he closes his hotel window one evening, he overhears two unidentified characters talking in another room. “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Poirot smilingly dismisses it – they’re probably discussing a play, he thinks, or a mystery novel.

After this great start, Poirot recedes into the background for a bit, while the reader is introduced to all the other characters. The main group is the Boynton family, a strange and nervy bunch ruled over by their manipulative and sadistic matriarch, Mrs Boynton – one of Christie’s greatest creations, in my opinion. Her step-children are all grown up in the physical sense, but have never managed to cut loose from her control. Lennox, the eldest, is married to Nadine, the least affected by Mrs Boynton since she wasn’t brainwashed in childhood as the others were. Then there are the two younger step-children, Carol and Raymond, who are desperate for freedom but caught like moths in a flame, unable to work out how to escape. But the most troubled member of the family is the youngest, Ginevra, Mrs Boynton’s own child, now on the brink of womanhood and driven to the edge of madness by her mother’s evil games.

There are others on the trip too, who will all find themselves involved with the Boyntons in one way or another. Sarah King provides the main perspective, though in the third person. Newly qualified as a doctor, she is concerned about what she sees happening to the younger Boyntons. There’s also a French psychologist on the trip, Dr Gerrard, and it’s through the conversations of the two doctors that Christie lays out the psychology of Mrs Boynton for the readers. Add in an elderly spinster who’s abroad for the first time, an American who’s in love with Nadine, a British lady politician who does a good line in bullying on her own account, and the Arab servants, and there’s a plentiful supply of suspects and witnesses for Poirot to interview when the inevitable happens…

Agatha Christie

A bit like with Dickens, my favourite Christie tends to be the one I’ve just read, and this is no exception. For the Egyptian setting, which Christie paints in shades of exotic menace; for the great plot, one of her best; for the psychologically diverse and well drawn group of characters; and most of all for the brooding, malignant presence of Mrs Boynton, a bloated, poisonous spider at the centre of her web, this is a top-rank novel from the pen of the High Queen of Crime.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Christie allowing each character their turn in the spotlight, and the opportunity to say or do something that will look deeply suspicious later on. I’ve read it so often that, of course, I spot all the clues now as they happen but, for me, this contains the best delivered crucial clue in all the detective fiction I’ve read. It’s hidden in plain sight – it’s right there, and yet I defy you to see it. And if that’s not enough, just before the denouement Poirot lays out every clue in a list for the local British dignitary, Colonel Carbury. Fair play taken to its extreme, and yet the case is still utterly baffling until Poirot brilliantly solves it, at which point it’s completely satisfying.

Hugh Fraser

I listened to Hugh Fraser’s narration, which is excellent as always. He doesn’t “act” the characters, except for Poirot, so no falsely high voices for the women and so on, but he subtly differentiates between them so it’s always clear who’s speaking, and he gives them American or English accents as appropriate. For his version of Poirot, Fraser reproduces a very close approximation to David Suchet’s Poirot accent, giving the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

Fabulous stuff – I’m having so much fun listening to the audiobooks of all these favourite Christies. It’s a great way to make even the ones I know inside out feel fresh again. And for new readers, what a treat! Highly recommended.

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Mr Bedford’s financial difficulties become pressing, he leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside to write a play which he is sure will win him fame and fortune, despite him never having written anything before. Instead, he meets his new neighbour Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

….I do not remember before that night thinking at all of the risks we were running. Now they came like that array of spectres that once beleaguered Prague, and camped around me. The strangeness of what we were about to do, the unearthliness of it, overwhelmed me. I was like a man awakened out of pleasant dreams to the most horrible surroundings. I lay, eyes wide open, and the sphere seemed to get more flimsy and feeble, and Cavor more unreal and fantastic, and the whole enterprise madder and madder every moment.
….I got out of bed and wandered about. I sat at the window and stared at the immensity of space. Between the stars was the void, the unfathomable darkness!

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying revisiting some of the HG Wells stories I enjoyed in my youth, and reading for the first time the ones I missed back then. As with the others, I read the Oxford World’s Classics version, which has the usual informative and enjoyable introduction, this time from Simon J James, Professor of Victorian Literature and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which sets the book in its historical and literary context. This is one I hadn’t read before and perhaps it’s fair to say it’s one of the less well known ones, though only in comparison to the universal fame of some of the others, like The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. While I think it hasn’t got quite the depth of those, it’s at least as enjoyable, if not more so.

Mostly this is because of the characterisation and the interplay between the two men, which give the book a lot of humour. Bedford, our narrator, is rather a selfish cad without too much going on in the way of ethics or heroism, but I found him impossible to dislike. He’s so honest about his own personality, not apologising for it, but not hypocritically trying to make himself seem like anything other than what he is – someone who’s out for what he can get. Cavor also has some issues with ethics, though in his case it’s not about greed. He’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.

….“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. “It’s the very Devil. The mediæval priests and persecutors were right and the Moderns are all wrong. You tamper with it—and it offers you gifts. And directly you take them it knocks you to pieces in some unexpected way. Old passions and new weapons—now it upsets your religion, now it upsets your social ideas, now it whirls you off to desolation and misery!”

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily two, in this case. Firstly, through Cavor’s invention of Cavorite (the name gives an indication of Cavor’s desire for glory, I feel!), Wells looks at the huge leaps that were being made in the fields of science and technology and issues a warning that, while these promise great progress for mankind, they also threaten potential catastrophe if the science isn’t tempered by ethical controls. Secondly, through the race of beings that Cavor and Bedford find when they arrive on the moon, Wells speculates on a form of society so utopian in its social control that it becomes positively terrifying! He uses this society, though, as a vehicle to comment on the less than utopian situation back on Earth, though I couldn’t help feeling he frequently had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek as he did so.

….The stuff was not unlike a terrestrial mushroom, only it was much laxer in texture, and, as one swallowed it, it warmed the throat. At first we experienced a mere mechanical satisfaction in eating; then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds.
….“It’s good,” said I. “Infernally good! What a home for our surplus population! Our poor surplus population,” and I broke off another large portion.

But the themes are treated more lightly in this one, and Wells allows his imagination free rein. One of the things I enjoyed most was how he includes a lot of realistic science even as he creates an impossible substance in Cavorite and an equally impossible race of moon-beings, the Selenites. Of course we’ve all looked down on Earth from planes now, but Wells imagines how it would look from space. He describes convincingly how to control a sphere covered in Cavorite by using gravity and the slingshot effect of planetary mass. He describes the weightlessness of zero gravity brilliantly, many decades before anyone had experienced it. His Selenites are a vision of evolved insect life, which frankly gave me the shivers, especially when he describes how they are bred, reared and surgically altered to happily fulfil a single function in life – a kind of precursor of the humans in Brave New World but with insect faces and arms!

I won’t give spoilers as to what happens to the men, but the ending gives a minor commentary on one of Wells’ other recurring themes – man’s tendency to look on other people’s territory as fair game for invasion and colonisation. But since you’re now thinking – but wait! That IS a spoiler! I assure you it’s really not, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why it’s not. Or you could just read it because it’s a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement. What are you waiting for? Jump aboard the Cavorite sphere – you don’t get the chance to go to the Moon every day of the week!

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

Book 25 of 90

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

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It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and the major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

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Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

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A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.

This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.

Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”

Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.

David Chariandy

I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.

There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.

We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away.
Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.

An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.

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

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Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Crème de la crème…

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Shona McMonagle works in an Edinburgh library, putting to good use the excellent education she received at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Woe betide anyone who requests a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though – That Book, as Shona calls it, which she believes so misrepresented all that the School stood for. Being a middle-aged woman of steady nerves and common sense, Shona takes it in her stride when the supposedly long-dead Miss Blaine shows up in the library one day. Miss Blaine is not dead, however – she is a time-traveller, and wants to recruit Shona to her elite team of people who travel through time on missions to sort out problems. Soon Shona finds herself transported back to Russia, sometime in the early 19th century, where she believes her task is to save young Lidia Ivanovna from marriage to an elderly general, and instead make sure she marries the super gorgeous and charming Sasha. But, despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of history, her multilingual abilities, and her skill in martial arts, sometimes Shona gets things wrong…

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

Well, this is a total hoot! Olga Wojtas has created a wonderful character in the astonishingly talented but oddly myopic Shona, a woman who can do just about anything but fails to see the blindingly obvious even when it’s right under her nose. The book cover mentions Wodehouse, and I see that comparison – Shona’s Russia has the same unreal quality as Wodehouse’s England, though not nearly as idyllic, and there’s no doubt the book had me laughing as much as Wodehouse does. But I’d be more tempted to compare it to Blackadder – based on ‘proper’ history grossly exaggerated for comic effect and with a central character who is somewhat apart from the others. The Russian aristocracy reminded me very much of Queenie and her courtiers, with their total disregard for their inferiors and their general level of silliness, while Shona’s chief serf Old Vatrushkin could easily have stood in for Baldrick. But Shona Fergusovna (as she calls herself in Russia) is much nicer than Blackadder – her ambition is to help everyone around her, even if they don’t particularly want to be helped.

….“If you’re not able to follow my instructions, then Lidia Ivanovna is not able to go to Madame Potapova’s party,” she said, yellow wool flowing from her needles. “Which is a pity, since I know she would enjoy wearing this fichu.”
….I sighed. “All right. I agree.”
….“You swear?”
….“Never. I believe it’s the sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The plot involves a whole host of ghastly deaths but it’s fine, because nobody cares and they mostly deserve it. One of the most fun aspects is that, unlike in most crime fiction where the point is for the reader to be way behind the fictional ‘tec and surprised by the solution, in this one, the reader sees what’s going on long, long before Shona catches on. Since we’re being told the story by Shona in first person (past tense), we are treated to her constant misinterpretations of the events around her. This could have been annoying if Shona had been less likeable, but it’s her desire to see the best in people and her kindness that lead her astray time and again, plus she’s very funny, sometimes even intentionally. She’s also a feisty feminist, who can’t help trying to spread political correctness everywhere she goes, much to the utter bafflement of everyone she meets, who seem to think their society is fine the way it is. It’s beautifully done – Wojtas manages to make fun of non-political correctness and political correctness at one and the same time.

….“We’ll start with a Dashing White Sergeant,” I told them…
As I played, the other musicians gamely following my lead, I called out clear, simple instructions for dancing the reel. “Forward, back, forward! Grab an arm! Twizzle! Hoppity-hop!”
….But despite the precision of my directions, it was a catastrophe. The dancers careered into one another, crashing into tables and chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over footmen. Then came an ominous commotion at the far end of the ballroom, and a shriek of “Saints in heaven! Save him!”

Olga Wojtas

Then there’s the Scottishness – such joy! So many Scottish writers abandon their Scottishness, understandably, so that their books can appeal to a wider audience. I sympathise, even though it annoys me. Wojtas instead makes a feature of it, and does so brilliantly. There’s no dialect at all that would make it hard for non-Scots to read, but lots of specifically Scottish references and figures of speech that had me howling. Any book that includes a reference to Jimmy Logan, a John Knox joke, a running gag on Jock Tamson and his bairns, and more than one side-swipe at the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry will work for me! But it will also work for non-Scots, because Wojtas lightly provides just enough information to explain the references, so that the jokes still deliver.

Great fun! I hope Wojtas is working hard on the follow-up because I really don’t want to wait too long to meet up with Shona again…

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

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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

God’s chosen few…

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When George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle, takes a much younger bride, the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The Laird is a fun-loving, hard-drinking, party animal – the bride, Rabina, holds extreme religious views of the Calvinist variety. She despises him; he is disappointed in her. Remarkably, despite this, they manage to produce two sons. The first, George, will grow up to be the apple of his father’s eye. The younger, Robert, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabina’s close friend and spiritual adviser, Reverend Wringhim. The Laird rejects him and Robert is brought up as a ward of Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinates him in the antinomian sect which believes that some people – the elect, or justified – are predestined to be saved by God, while everyone else will burn in hell. This is a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

It’s a historical novel: first published in 1824, it’s set more than a century earlier, between 1687 and 1715, roughly – or from the Glorious Revolution that saw the final downfall of the Stuarts, through the parliamentary Union between Scotland and England, and on towards the Jacobite rebellions. I’m reasonably familiar with this period of history on a fairly superficial level, but I was nevertheless glad to be reading a book with explanatory notes, and would suggest that’s essential for anyone who doesn’t know the background to the religious and political situation in Scotland at that time. Not that the book gets at all bogged down in any of these subjects, but the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with them, so doesn’t explain them as he goes along. My Oxford World’s Classics edition provides concise background information – enough to allow the reader to understand the references without feeling that s/he’s reading a history book – and a glossary and notes which explain any unfamiliar terms or allusions. The informative introduction, by Ian Duncan, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, sets the book in its historical and literary context, and provides some biographical information on the author.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

The story is told in two main parts, plus a short epilogue. The second part is the memoir and confession referred to in the title. The first is written by “the Editor” who, before presenting the reader with the memoir, tells what he has managed to learn of the actual events. This means we see the same story twice, allowing us to judge for ourself how much we can rely on the sinner’s account. The third part wraps the story up in the author’s present day and is unfortunately full of references to real people who were doubtless recognisable at the time but who have faded into obscurity since, so that some of the humour of this section is rather lost now.

The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma. On a wider level, he quietly mocks the way all religious sects tend to cherry-pick the bits of dogma that suit their world view best, while ignoring or “interpreting” the inconvenient bits of Scripture they don’t like.

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

On the day that Robert is told he is one of the elect, he meets a mysterious young man under whose spell he gradually falls. This man convinces Robert that he cannot sin whatever he does, and gradually leads him down a path that will lead to murder – more than one! The structure makes this particularly intriguing. Robert’s own memoir can be seen as the confession of a madman and his tempter could easily be seen as a delusion. But the Editor’s account suggests that the tempter is a real being, seen and witnessed by many others in physical form. To modern eyes, the temptation to see him as a product of mental illness is almost irresistible, but I suspect readers at the time would have been in no doubt about his Satanic origins.

It all sounds terribly dark and serious, I know, but the satirical element keeps it entertaining. There’s a lot of humour in it, particularly in the comparison of the Editor’s portrayal of Robert as a snivelling coward and Robert’s own vastly more heroic portrayal of himself. There’s also some great horror as Robert gets sucked further and further into his tempter’s schemes. And a whole lot of fairly wry insight into Scottish society. The vast majority is written in standard English, but there’s some brilliantly executed dialect in the dialogue, where Hogg manages to differentiate between the various regions of Scotland, and rather shows that the “common” man has considerably more common sense than his social “betters.”

Book 24 of 90

I read this one reluctantly because I felt I ought to given its status as a Scottish classic, and ended up much to my own surprise enjoying it thoroughly. Hogg takes all these theological and societal aspects, and turns them into an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation. Like so many others, it has suffered from the cultural domination exerted by England over the last few centuries, but it’s time these Scottish classics took their rightful place in the sun as equal partners in the great British literary tradition – highly recommended.

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

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The Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 1) by Robert Daws

Sun, sea, sand and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan of the London Metropolitan Police steps outside the rules, she effectively stalls her career. Now she’s been sent on a three-month secondment to the Royal Gibraltar Police Force, which she sees at first as a form of punishment. But sun, sea, sand and friendly colleagues soon make her feel that as punishments go, this one could be worse. Meantime, two motorcycle cops chasing a thief are involved in a fatal accident in which a well-known and well-loved local resident dies. When one of the cops is later found hanged, the obvious conclusion is suicide, but Sullivan’s new boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, isn’t so sure…

There seems to be a little spate of actors taking to writing crime novels at the moment and I’m always a little hesitant to read them if it’s an actor I like in case the books change how I feel about them. I’ve had a major soft spot for Robert Daws for many years. Partly this is because he’s a great character actor with a lovely sense of comic timing, and partly it’s because he tends to act in the kind of things I enjoy watching. He was a brilliant Tuppy Glossop in the Fry and Laurie version of Jeeves and Wooster. He starred with Brenda Blethyn in the wonderful comedy drama, Outside Edge, back in the ’90s. I even seem to remember him way back as one of the smaller roles in the fabulous Robin of Sherwood series in the ’80s. So I was a bit apprehensive to “meet” him in his new guise of crime writer.

However, I needn’t have worried! This is a very well written short novel that feels in many ways like the pilot episode of a TV series, so it didn’t surprise me to read in the afterword that it’s been optioned and is being developed for TV. The mystery in the book is a good one, with proper suspects and clues and a strong thriller ending. There’s a connected sub-plot about an old lady in a big house, with a dark secret in a room upstairs, which is beautifully creepy.

But as an introduction to a new series, the most important aspect is the development of the recurring characters – Sullivan, Broderick and their colleagues. And oh, how lovely that they’re all likeable, not too maverick, no known addiction problems, and get on well together as a team! That might make them sound dull, but they’re not – both Sullivan and Broderick will step over the line when necessary, but in the sense of taking risks to solve their case rather than in the casual beating up of suspects or being outrageously rude to superior officers, etc. More importantly, there’s an enjoyable vein of humour running through the book in the dialogue amongst the regulars, and Daws manages to make this sound very natural and realistic. Young DC Calbot, for instance, has a habit of saying things which could be mild innuendo but might just as easily be entirely innocent, and Sullivan’s inability to decide whether he’s doing it deliberately is fun.

Sullivan is single and reasonably happy to be so. Broderick was married, but now lives with his sister who helps him care for his younger daughter, a girl with Downs syndrome, an aspect of the story which Daws handles very well without any sense of mawkishness. Broderick is a bit grumpy on the surface and a little peeved to have been landed with this Met secondee with a dodgy reputation, but he soon begins to see that she’s a good officer and sets about bringing her fully into the team.

Robert Daws

Daws apparently knows Gibraltar well and he brings the setting to life. It’s an intriguing place, this bastion of Britishness set off the coast of Spain, and Daws makes a good start at showing its unique culture along with its natural beauty, though there’s plenty of room for further development of this as the series progresses.

Third person, past tense, very little swearing, hard-hitting crimes without being unnecessarily gruesome, interesting location – I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Sullivan and Broderick and am looking forward to reading the next in the series, The Poisoned Rock, soon. And, just in case any TV moguls are reading my blog, I think this would make an excellent TV series. Any chance of Mr Daws playing Broderick, please? Just askin’…

NB I won this and The Poisoned Rock from Urbane Press, via The Quiet Geordie‘s giveaway. Thanks again – much appreciated!

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

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