FictionFan Awards 2017 – Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE
CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

This category is taking the place of genre fiction this year. My growing obsession with vintage crime fiction has left me with little time to read either sci-fi or horror, and these older books have been some of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case. The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate.

Excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. It’s easy to see why this one is considered a classic.

Click to see the full review

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

Despite some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, this is a hugely enjoyable rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. Well written and with likeable lead characters, the pace never lets up – a truly wild ride!

Click to see the full review

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Cop Hater by Ed McBain

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre – a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Good though the shorlisted books are, in the end this was an easy decision. The Lodger stands out as one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read – what today we would call a psychological thriller.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger of being The Avenger. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. No wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. A great classic and a worthy winner indeed!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

I simply Kant take any more…

😖

When Dr Umpleby, the President of prestigious and ancient St Anthony’s College, is found murdered, Inspector Appleby of the Yard is rushed to the spot, as the local plods will clearly not be well educated or cultured enough to deal with such a sensitive affair. Fortunately Appleby can quote major and minor philosophers with the best of them and has more than a passing knowledge of all the arcane subjects covered in a classical Oxbridge education, all of which will no doubt help him to uncover who killed the President and why.

The tone of my introduction may have been somewhat of a spoiler for my opinion of the book, so I may as well jump straight to the conclusion – I abandoned this at just under 40%, finally throwing in the towel when one of the characters hinted that the clue to the mystery might be found in an anecdote about Kant quoted in a book by De Quincey. This, only a couple of pages after the following passage…

And he [Inspector Appleby] sipped his whisky and finally murmured to Titlow [a suspect], with something of the whimsicality that Titlow had been adopting a little before, “What truth is it that these mountains bound, and is a lie in the world beyond?”

There was silence while Titlow’s eye dwelt meditatively on the policeman conversant with Montaigne. Then he smiled, and his smile had great charm. “I wear my heart on my wall?” he asked. “To project one’s own conflicts, to hang them up in simple pictorial terms – it is to be able to step back and contemplate oneself. You understand?”

I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more useful had Appleby asked whether Titlow had crept into the college garden in the middle of the night and shot the President, or searched his rooms for the gun, but each to his own, I suppose. And certainly, my method wouldn’t have allowed Innes to show his vast erudition and superior intellect, which appears to be the main purpose of the book.

Challenge details:
Book: 52
Subject Heading: Education, Education, Education
Publication Year: 1936

The actual plot is based on there being a limited number of people, almost all academics, who could have had access to Dr Umpleby’s rooms at the time of the murder. Sadly, this aspect becomes tedious very quickly with much talk of who had or didn’t have keys, where rooms are in relation to each other, where walls and passages are. I felt a desperate need for a nap… oops, I mean a map… after the first several dozen pages of description. Oddly enough, Innes claims Appleby is happier dealing with problems on a “human or psychological plane” and then proceeds to have this great intellectual wandering around in the (literal) dark, playing hunt the missing key. By 40%, only one possible motive had emerged, largely because Appleby seems more interested in listing the academic tomes on the suspects’ bookshelves than in trying to find out where they had been at the time of the crime.

Michael Innes

This is one of Martin Edwards’ picks in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I’ve seen several positive reviews of other books of Michael Innes’ recently, so I’m willing to accept that my antipathy to this style of writing isn’t universal, or perhaps Innes improved in later books – this, I believe, was his first. However, the only emotions it provoked in me were tedium and irritation at the perpetual intellectual snobbery. Having been made to realise my own status as dullard, I shall take my inferior intellect and defective education off into the dunce’s corner now… but don’t feel too sorry for me, for I shall take with me an ample supply of chocolate and some books by authors who may not have achieved a First in Classics at Oxbridge but who nevertheless seem to have grasped the definition of the word “entertain”…

In truth, I think my rating of this one is harsh – had I been able to convince myself to struggle through it, it may have earned three stars for the quality of the writing and plot. But since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I fear I can only give it one.

PS Appleby and Umpleby? Seriously??

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The TBR Book Tag 2017

The truth, the whole truth…

I first did this tag back in 2015, and then last week Cleo reminded me of it when she brought her own one up-to-date. So I thought I’d do it again and see what, if anything has changed…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I have the same spreadsheet as I had back then, but it’s got even more complicated now! As well as sections for the TBR, the GAN Quest, lists of reviews, outstanding review copies, books that aren’t yet published, 5-star authors, etc., etc., plus the all-important reading schedule for the next three months, I now have lists for my four challenges too: Reading the Russian Revolution; Murder, Mystery, Mayhem; the Classics Club; and Around the World in 80 Books. Oh, and then there’s a separate spreadsheet for audiobooks. Frankly it’s a full-time job keeping it all up-to-date – no wonder I need to eat so much chocolate!

You have to admire the colour-coding though, eh?

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

It’s still mostly e-book, though I’ve been enjoying getting back to paper books a bit more recently. I vastly prefer factual books in paper – it’s so much easier to flick back and forwards to notes, maps etc. But I’ve rediscovered my love of reading crime and fiction in paperback too. However, my Kindle Fire is still my most prized piece of technology, full of NetGalley stuff, Complete Works collections of zillions of classic authors, books bought at bargain prices on offers from Amazon, and audiobooks.

How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

I have to try to juggle the review copies with my various challenges, so at the end of each month I spend a couple of hours planning three months ahead. I don’t stick rigidly to it if something comes along that I can’t resist but it does keep me vaguely on track. I still have the same problem of too many review copies though – some things never change!

A book that’s been on your TBR the longest?

The Observations by Jane Harris. I am deeply ashamed to say that I bought it on 20th June 2011, and yet somehow haven’t managed to fit it in during the last six years. I’d feel better about it if it was the only one from 2011, but sadly not. No Name by Wilkie Collins is lingering there too. In my defence, it only went on my actual list a couple of years ago when I trawled through all my Kindle books and found loads I had bought on 99p deals in my first flush of Kindle enthusiasm and never read…

The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her past, Bessy Buckley takes a job working as a maid in a big country house. But when Arabella, her beautiful mistress, asks her to undertake a series of bizarre tasks, Bessy begins to realise that she hasn’t quite landed on her feet. In one of the most acclaimed debuts of recent years, Jane Harris has created a heroine who will make you laugh and cry as she narrates this unforgettable story about secrets and suspicions and the redemptive power of love and friendship.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I’m super enthusiastic about my most recent addition – it will be one of the final books for my Russian Revolution thing, and I think it sounds great.

The Blurb says: In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura brings a noir sensibility to one of the most fascinating and complex political narratives of the past hundred years: the assassination of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader.

The story revolves around Iván Cárdenas Maturell, who in his youth was the great hope of modern Cuban literature—until he dared to write a story that was deemed counterrevolutionary. When we meet him years later in Havana, Iván is a loser: a humbled and defeated man with a quiet, unremarkable life who earns his modest living as a proofreader at a veterinary magazine. One afternoon, he meets a mysterious foreigner in the company of two Russian wolfhounds. This is “the man who loved dogs,” and as the pair grow closer, Iván begins to understand that his new friend is hiding a terrible secret.

Moving seamlessly between Iván’s life in Cuba, Ramón’s early years in Spain and France, and Trotsky’s long years of exile, The Man Who Loved Dogs is Padura’s most ambitious and brilliantly executed novel yet. This is a story about political ideals tested and characters broken, a multilayered epic that effortlessly weaves together three different plot threads— Trotsky in exile, Ramón in pursuit, Iván in frustrated stasis—to bring emotional truth to historical fact.

A novel whose reach is matched only by its astonishing successes on the page, The Man Who Loved Dogs lays bare the human cost of abstract ideals and the insidious, corrosive effects of life under a repressive political regime.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

Nope – I can only repeat my answer from 2015. I do like covers but am never influenced by them alone, good or bad, though if they’re especially good, they might at least tempt me to look at the blurb. I love the British Library Crime Classics covers though…

…and the Agatha Christie covers that Audible is currently using…

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

No… not really… well… I admit… some of those 99p bargains I mentioned above have lost a lot of their appeal over the years, but I periodically trawl through and delete any that I really don’t want to read, so theoretically at least I plan on reading everything on my current list…

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

I’ve been trying not to acquire so many advance copies so I don’t have many unpublished books on the TBR at the moment. But this is one I picked purely on the basis of the blurb and publisher – Canongate are one of the leaders in promoting quality Scottish fiction writers. I’m hoping it’ll be as good as it sounds…

The Blurb says: Shetland: a place of sheep and soil, of harsh weather, close ties and an age-old way of life. A place where David has lived all his life, like his father and grandfather before him, but where he abides only in the present moment. A place where Sandy, a newcomer but already a crofter, may have finally found a home. A place that Alice has fled to after the death of her husband.

But times do change – island inhabitants die, or move away, and David worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that this valley has always needed, while others wonder if it was ever truly theirs to join. In the wind and sun and storms from the Atlantic, these islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?

The debut novel from one of Scotland’s most exciting new literary voices, The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story about community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

So, so many now that I’ve joined the Classics Club! But the one that stands out most is Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – EVERYBODY has read it! And I hereby swear on all I hold most dear…

… I too will have read it before spring is sprung!

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Hmm… probably the one that has been most often recommended to me over the years is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – I can’t understand why I’ve never read it. And I hereby swear on all I hold most dear…

… I will have read it before spring is sprung! (But I’m not specifying which spring…)

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

About 90% of them, which is a lot! But here are a few that I’m absolutely determined to read soon!

How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

None! I don’t use it – I only list books I’ve read or am reading on Goodreads. However, here are the dreaded figures from the spreadsheet…

So… up by 62 since 2015! But considering I added zillions when I joined the Classics Club, and zillions more when I started the 100 Classic Crime novels challenge, I think that’s pretty good! It’s only 4 years worth, after all! In fact, I might have to think about topping it up soon…

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Of course, I haven’t included the audiobooks…

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Go on – I tag you! Reveal all…

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level.

There is an introduction and an afterword, and it’s essential to read them both. The book is presented as a manuscript come to light years after the author’s death, and translated by Burnet from the original French. This device is crucial in getting the full impact of what follows, but I’ll go no further than that since the journey is best taken without a roadmap. This is actually the second book featuring Inspector Gorski. I haven’t read the first one, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, but didn’t find that presented a problem – this one works entirely as a standalone.

The setting is the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s. A drab and dreary little town from the author’s account of it, a respectable backwater. It is brilliantly drawn – I could see the streets and the little run-down cafés and bars, where people have their regular tables and drink their regular drinks each day. I could smell the Gitanes, feel the rain, visualise each person, their class and social standing indicated with subtlety and authenticity. No wonder Raymond thought the next town along the road, Mulhouse, was an exciting metropolis in comparison, with its shops and cinemas and life!

Both towns are important characters in the book but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story. Gorski is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but without the ambition or desire to find his way out. He is content to be the Chief of Police in Saint-Louis – a medium-size fish in a tiny pool – even if he’s not particularly liked by his subordinates nor respected by those at the top of the social heap. He’s less happy with the fact that his wife has just left him – he’s not altogether sure why and he’s not convinced that he wants to change whatever it is about himself that’s led her to go. He’s a decent man, but rather passively so – neither hero nor villain. It’s the skill of the writing that makes this ordinary man into an extraordinary character.

Raymond is on the cusp of adulthood and, faced with the sudden death of a father with whom his relationship has never been close, is unsure how to react. Burnet does a wonderful job of showing how hard it can be for a young person to know how to deal with these great crises that life throws at us. Raymond struggles to conform to other people’s expectations of how he should behave and seems at first rather unaffected by his father’s death. But as he gets sucked into trying to discover more about Bertrand’s life, Burnet quietly lets us see how grief is there, deep within him, perhaps so deep he can’t make himself fully aware of it – grief either for the father he has lost, or perhaps for the father that he felt he’d never really had. But at that time of life grief is rarely all-consuming – Raymond’s quest leads him into new experiences and new desires, and as he discovers more about his father, so he discovers more about himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

All the other characters we meet along the way are just as well-drawn, building up a complete picture of the two neighbouring societies at the heart of the story. Despite the relative brevity of the book, the secondary characters are allowed to develop over time, making them feel rounded and true. Short sketches of people who appear only for moments in a café or on the street all add to the understanding of the culture, which in turn adds to our understanding of how it has formed and shaped our main characters, Raymond and Gorski. Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life.

For me the place and people are what makes this book so special, but there’s an excellent plot at the heart of it too. There are definite undertones of Simenon’s Maigret in the writing, a debt Burnet acknowledges, and lots of references to the greats of French literature. There’s also a noir feel to it, though in line with the town this noir is greyish rather than black. As Raymond and Gorski each come to the end of their separate quests, I found it fully satisfying as both a story and a brilliant display of characterisation. And then the afterword made me reassess everything I’d just read…

Not a word of criticism in this review because I can find nothing to criticise. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. It deserves and gets my highest recommendation – superb!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Classics Club Spin #16

Place your bets…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 16th Spin, and my third. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before Friday, 17th November. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 31, 2017. I may have to eat several extra cakes to turbo-charge my reading speed so’s I can fit another book in, but that’s a sacrifice I’ll just have to make…

So here’s my list. This time I’ve selected it on the basis mainly of the books on my list that I don’t own yet (topped up by a couple that I do), and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. Mostly I’m hoping for a short one. And not Sons and Lovers. Or The Catcher in the Rye. (What was I thinking when I put them on my list? Why didn’t you stop me???) Anyway, here’s hoping for a good spin…

(Clicking on the title will take you to the book description on Goodreads.)

1) Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

2) All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

3) The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

5) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

6) Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

7) Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

8) The African Queen by CS Forester

9) The Go-Between by LP Hartley

10) Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

11) Annals of the Parish by John Galt

12) Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

13) No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

14) The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

15) Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

16) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

17) Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

18) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

19) On the Beach by Nevil Shute

20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

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If I had to choose, I’d like to see The Bull Calves come up, or The Postman Always Rings Twice. But it’s in the lap of the gods – my bets have all been placed and the wheel is spinning…

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 141…

Episode 141…

A massive drop in the TBR this week! Down 2 to 217! Well on the way to single figures, see? I may have to stock up on a few more books before I run out…

This might be the last TBR post before Christmas, since the annual FictionFan Awards will be kicking off soon, so here are a few that I’m determined to fit in before year end… somehow or other!

Dickens for Christmas

I’ve had a tradition for many years of reading Dickens over Christmas, which is why I included five of his novels on my Classics Club list. This will be a re-read of one that I love for all the weird and wonderful characters…

The Blurb says: When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father’s death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. His adventures gave Dickens the opportunity to portray an extraordinary gallery of rogues and eccentrics: Wackford Squeers, the tyrannical headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted boys; the slow-witted orphan Smike, rescued by Nicholas; and the gloriously theatrical Mr and Mrs Crummles and their daughter, the ‘infant phenomenon’. Like many of Dickens’s novels, Nicholas Nickleby is characterised by his outrage at cruelty and social injustice, but it is also a flamboyantly exuberant work, revealing his comic genius at its most unerring.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! Angela Savage is one of them and I’ve been intending to read this, her debut novel from before I ‘met’ her, for ages. She’s written another two in the series and is currently working on a non-series novel, so I better get a move on!

The Blurb says: Thirty-something Australian Jayne Keeney works as a PI in Bangkok. Shaken by a serious incident, she heads north to visit her close friend Didier in Chiang Mai, though there’s no relief for her there.

Murder is in the air and the police, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ratratarn, have no interest in justice. But Jayne does. With some help from Arthur Conan Doyle, she digs deep – past the tacky glamour of the city’s clubs and bars, arrogant expats, corrupt officials, and a steamy affair – to find out just what happened behind the Night Bazaar.

Angela Savage has brought the streets of Thailand vividly to life. In Jayne Keeney she has created a gutsy heroine. This is an unforgettable debut novel and the start of an exciting new series.

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Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. When The Graduate came out in 1967, I was too young to see it, but I did watch it several times in the following decades. It didn’t have quite the impact on me that this book claims it had on those who saw it when it came out, but nonetheless there are some scenes that are etched indelibly in my memory. And of course, there’s the music…

The Blurb says: When The Graduate premiered in December 1967, its filmmakers had only modest expectations attached to what seemed to be a small, sexy, art house comedy adapted from an obscure first novel by an eccentric twenty-four-year-old. There was little indication that this offbeat story–a young man just out of college has an affair with one of his parents’ friends–would turn out to be a monster hit, with an extended run in theaters and seven Academy Award nominations.

The film catapulted an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, to stardom with a role that is now permanently engraved in our collective memories. And just as it turned the word plastics into shorthand for soulless work and a corporate, consumer culture, The Graduate sparked a national conversation about what came to be called “the generation gap.”

Now, in time for this iconic film’s fiftieth birthday, author Beverly Gray offers up a smart close reading of the film itself and vivid, never-before-revealed details from behind the scenes of the production–including all the drama and decision-making of the cast and crew. For movie buffs and pop culture fans, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson brings to light The Graduate’s huge influence on the future of filmmaking, and it explores how this unconventional movie rocked the late sixties world, both reflecting and changing the era’s views of sex, work, and marriage.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! No, you’re not suffering from déjà vu – this is another one! Caleigh O’Shea is the pen name of my blog buddy Debbie who blogs over at Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom, and this is her newly-released debut novel…

The Blurb says: Texas journalist Josh Griffin lives for scoops, but he’s never faced real danger to get one. Nor has he ever been emotionally drawn into his stories. Then he gets an anonymous tip that teenaged golf superstar Lexi Carlisle has been kidnapped, and Josh embarks on an investigation destined to change his life forever. Lexi Carlisle is the daughter of Josh’s college sweetheart; watching Amanda agonize over her missing daughter while refuting police insinuations that she had something to do with the crime is more than Josh can handle. And when he unravels the web of lies spun by Lexi’s crazed kidnapper — who has killed once and isn’t afraid to do so again — Josh realizes the story takes second place to the girl’s rescue.

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Christmas Crime on Audio

Narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, doesn’t this sound like perfect festive fun?

The Blurb says: A collection of four short stories from P. D. James, published together for the first time.

As the acknowledged “Queen of Crime”, P. D. James was frequently commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write special short stories for Christmas. Four of the very best of these have been rescued from the archives and are published together. P. D. James’ prose illuminates each of these perfectly formed stories, making them ideal listening for the darkest days of the year.

While she delights in the secrets that lurk beneath the surface at enforced family gatherings, her Christmas stories also provide enjoyable puzzles to keep the reader guessing. From the title story about a strained country-house Christmas party to another about an illicit affair that ends in murder and two cases for James’ poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, each treats the reader to James’ masterfully atmospheric storytelling, always with the lure of a mystery to be solved.

The four stories are: The Mistletoe Murder; A Very Commonplace Murder; The Boxdale Inheritance; The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Ellis to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

…which sounds remarkably like the only one of his books I have read…

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, the author lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book.

The office Halloween party was at the Royalton last week and I went as a mass murderer, complete with a sign painted on my back that read MASS MURDERER (which was decidedly lighter than the sandwich board I had constructed earlier that day that read DRILLER KILLER), and beneath those two words I had written in blood Yep, that’s me and the suit was also covered with blood, some of it fake, most of it real. In one fist I clenched a hank of Victoria Bell’s hair, and pinned next to my boutonniere (a small white rose) was a finger bone I’d boiled the flesh off of. As elaborate as my costume was, Craig McDermott still managed to win first place in the competition.

Less humour and less graphic gore, but just as much violence and horror for my next link to…

Psycho by Robert Bloch. When Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost, she makes a big mistake by deciding to spend the night at the Bates Motel. Norman Bates is pretty creepy, but not nearly as creepy as his mother… 😱The film is scarier, but the book has more psychological depth making it more substantial than a mere shocker. But all the famous scenes are still there…

The film of the book was of course directed by Hitchcock, which reminded me of…

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes – another terrifying tale that Hitch turned into an equally great film even if he changed the story pretty dramatically. When Mr and Mrs Bunting take in a new lodger, he seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. Gradually the Buntings begin to wonder if their lodger could possibly be the murderer, but with no proof, what should they do? What if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and they desperately need the money he pays for rent. But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. And in the film, Ivor Novello might be scary, but he’s also yummy…

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

The Lodger is set in turn of the century London, and Marie Belloc Lowndes makes great use of the notorious London fogs, which leads me to my next book…

London Fog by Christine L Corton. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period. While I found the tale of trying to get Parliament to act to clean up the air somewhat tedious, I loved all the stuff about how writers and artists had used the fog. Of course, Dickens was one of the greatest writers to use it…

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

And Monet one of the greatest artists…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

One of the fascinating factlets in the book is that the term “pea-souper” to describe the thick London fog was coined by none other than the author of my old adversary…

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Proving conclusively that more is required to make a good book than an intriguing blurb. The book may have been tedious, but the film is great…

…and provides two links to my final book. Firstly, one of the ships the Pequod meets with on its journey is called the Rosebud, and secondly, Orson Welles appears in a cameo role as the preacher. All of which made me think of…

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo. Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating…

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

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So Ellis to Lebo, via Bret Easton Ellis, psychos, Hitchcock, fog, pea-soupers and Orson Welles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Twin souls…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Callie and Tilda are twins but are very unlike each other. Tilda is beautiful with a kind of fragile quality that brings out the protective instinct in Callie as well as in many of the men she meets. She’s a young actress with one hugely successful role behind her and the prospect of a glittering career ahead. Callie is quieter, always having felt herself somewhat in Tilda’s shadow, though she loves her sister devotedly – too devotedly, perhaps. So when Tilda introduces Callie to her new boyfriend, Felix, Callie is quick to start worrying that Felix seems to exert an unhealthy hold over Tilda. And soon she’s seeking advice from an online forum set up by victims of controlling men…

I have loved Jane Robins’ true crime writing in the past, so was intrigued when I heard she was bringing out her first crime fiction novel. I knew the writing would be excellent – and it is – but how would she do on plotting and characterisation? Factual and fiction writing are two very beasts, after all. I’m delighted to say I needn’t have worried – Robins has given us a well above average psychological thriller that flows so smoothly I read it in a couple of lengthy sittings, unwilling to put it down.

It’s told in my pet hate first person, present tense, but since that seems to be obligatory in this genre, I took a deep breath and tried to ignore it. At least Robins does it well, unlike many of the dreadfully clunky books I’ve shuddered over in recent years. Callie is either a totally reliable narrator in which case we should be deeply worried about Tilda; or else Callie is nuts… in which case we should still be deeply worried about Tilda! The joy in the characterisation is that it’s not at all clear till very late on – I found myself swaying back and forwards, sometimes thinking Callie’s fears were well founded and then wondering if in fact she’d got the whole thing wrong. Because we see Tilda and Felix through Callie’s eyes, we can’t be sure how accurate the portrayal of either of them is, all of which allows for a lovely sense of unease to build up.

I’m going to admit there’s nothing very original in the plot and I had a good idea where we were headed from a fairly early point. In part, this is because there’s yet another of these prologues that tells you what’s going to happen much later in the book, but mainly it’s because both the blurb and the early chapters make a direct reference to a book and film famous for a particular plot point. I appreciated that Robins acknowledged her debt to that book and film, but personally think it would have been more suspenseful if the acknowledgement had been made in an afterword. However, the book has its own twists that stop it from being too similar, and despite feeling that I knew the destination, I still enjoyed the journey.

Mostly, this is because of Callie. It’s a fascinating study of a woman who has always been outshone by her twin, and although her behaviour is more than odd on occasion, I found her strangely likeable. Robins uses a lot of subtlety in showing us that Callie’s own perception of herself is different from other people’s – not easy to do in the first person. I found myself hoping more and more that somehow she would find a happy ending and I think my interest was mostly in finding out what happened to her than in the plot regarding Tilda and Felix, in truth. *TBR alert* Book people will enjoy that Callie works in a bookshop and has a love for contemporary crime fiction, so there are lots of mentions of authors and books that the reader may have read or will probably end up wanting to read.

Jane Robins

Even though the book has some of the elements that have put me off this genre – present tense, the prologue, etc. – I thoroughly enjoyed it because of the quality of the writing and characterisation. It’s not an angst-filled tale of woe despite the subject matter – in fact, there’s a reasonable amount of humour in it and even a nice, rather under-stated little romance in the background. In that sense, though the storyline is very contemporary, it feels more like an old-style psychological thriller than the modern misery-fest domestic thriller. And is all the better for that, in my opinion! A strong début, and I look forward to seeing where Robins takes me next…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Quiz for the day: Why is it called White Bodies? I have no idea. Answers below, please…

NetGalley Says Yes!

Mutual approval…

Last week, I posted about my NetGalley rejections, so this week I thought I’d talk about why I love NetGalley nearly as much as chocolate…

Of the 402 titles I’ve been approved for since I joined NG in 2013, I’ve sent feedback for 373 books (the rest are still on my TBR) and have posted reviews for 302 (though for a few I only posted a brief review on Goodreads). The others I abandoned, either because they weren’t for me or because they were too badly formatted to be enjoyable reading. Of the ones I’ve reviewed, roughly 65% were either 4 or 5 stars reads for me – pretty good, huh? Not quite as high as my ratings for books I buy, but then I’m more likely to take a chance on new or new-to-me authors through NG.

Narrowing my best picks down to a reasonable number would be nearly impossible, so instead I’ve decided to list a few of the authors I was introduced to by NG who have now become firm favourites – most are established authors but were new to me. So, in no particular order, here they are – my…

NETGALLEY HALL OF FAME

(Click on the author’s name to see my reviews.)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

My introduction to Robert Harris came through An Officer and a Spy, a wonderful fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Since then I’ve read every new book he’s released, plus I’ve started on his back catalogue, and I’ve loved every one. However I have loads more to go – he’s quite prolific! Next up will be his Cicero trilogy. He achieves the perfect marriage of research, plotting and excellent writing – great stuff!

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HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Given how much I’ve talked about various stories being Lovecraftian in my horror slot, it’s strange to think that I’d never heard of him till I read an Oxford World’s Classics collection called The Classic Horror Stories, with a very informative introduction by Roger Luckhurst (another entry to the Hall of Fame – I now look out specifically for books he introduces). I don’t altogether love Lovecraft – too long-winded, too racist – but I recognise absolutely the huge influence he has been on the ‘weird’ story and on horror in general. Since that first meeting, he’s made an annual appearance in my Tuesday Terror! slot.

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SC Gwynne

SC Gwynne

I was so blown away by SC Gwynne’s brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, that I gave it the FF Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The prize for this prestigious award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book, even if I have to buy it myself! Imagine my… ahem… delight, then, when Gwynne’s next book was The Perfect Pass – a book about American Football, a subject in which my interest and knowledge tie for last place. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it! Proof that a good writer can bring any subject to life. Oh, and I didn’t have to buy it – NetGalley gave me that one too.

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John Gaspard

John Gaspard

I’ve loved every book in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, all of which I’ve been given via NetGalley. A little too dark to be cosies, these are plotted in Golden Age style but with a contemporary setting. Eli is a stage magician and each book is set around a particular trick. Gaspard is brilliant at bringing the magic to life on the page, while following the magician’s code of never revealing how it’s done. I still laugh every time I remember how he managed to read my mind during a trick in book 1! His next book is due this month – can’t wait! And I’ve also bought an earlier book of his that predates this series – The Ripperologists – which sounds like fun too.

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Ken Kalfus

The first new-to-me author to whom NetGalley introduced me, when I fell in love with the cover of Equilateral and took a punt on it. He’s now a firm favourite – a writer who gets a lot of critical attention but still doesn’t seem to get the public readership and recognition I feel he deserves. I’ve read and loved a few of his books since then, old and new – only a couple more to go as he’s not nearly prolific enough! He spent several years in Russia so a lot of his books are directly or indirectly about life under the Soviets – he’s one of the inspirations behind my current fascination with that regime.

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Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman has firmly established himself as my favourite historian, despite some stiff competition in what has been a golden age for history books over the last few years. My first introduction to him was The Cave and The Light – a comprehensive look at the competing influences of Plato and Aristotle over the last 2,500 years of philosophy. Phew! Not an easy read, but a brilliant one. Since then, I’ve read all his new books and most of the ones that interest me from his back catalogue. And I’m super excited that he’s bringing out a new one on the Russian Revolution this month – the perfect way to end my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

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William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney

As probably the most influential Scottish crime writer of all time, known as the Father of Tartan Noir, I’m ashamed that I had never read any McIlvanney till NetGalley offered a new edition of his 1977 book, Laidlaw. I was blown away by the quality of the writing, his brilliant use of Glaswegian dialect and the total authenticity of his portrayal of the city at the time of my own youth in it. I have gone on to read the rest of the Laidlaw trilogy and one of his fiction novels, and am looking forward hugely to gradually working my way through the rest of his stuff. For McIlvanney alone, NetGalley has been a wondrous thing for me.

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So there they are – seven great authors I may never have read had it not been for NetGalley. And that’s not to mention all the wonderful books I’ve had from existing favourites like Jane Casey, Sharon Bolton, Belinda Bauer, etc., etc. All I can really say is…

THANKS, NETGALLEY!

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What about you? If you’re a NetGalley member have you found new favourites through them? If so, I’d love to hear – either in the comments or in a post of your own.

TBR Thursday 140…

Episode 140…

The bad news is that the TBR hasn’t gone down this week. The good news is it hasn’t gone up either! Staying stable on 219 – or to be more detailed – three out, three in.

Last week every book I listed was over 90 years old, so in the spirit of balance, here are some of the new releases that I will be reading soonish…

Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband. Having thoroughly enjoyed His Bloody Project, I was delighted to be offered Burnet’s new one. It sounds very different. However I note it says it’s a follow-up to an earlier book… hmm! Hopefully it will work even though I haven’t read that one…

The Blurb says: The methodical but troubled Chief Inspector Georges Gorski visits the wife of a lawyer killed in a road accident, the accident on the A35. The case is unremarkable, the visit routine.

Mme Barthelme—alluring and apparently unmoved by the news—has a single question: where was her husband on the night of the accident? The answer might change nothing, but it could change everything. And Gorski sets a course for what can only be a painful truth. But the dead man’s reticent son is also looking for answers. And his search will have far more devastating consequences.

The Accident on the A35 is the spellbinding follow-up to Graeme Macrae Burnet’s debut noir novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.

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NB A Verboballistic Invention – talking of His Bloody Project, the editor of the book, Craig Hillsley, popped into the comments section of my review to say “For those discussing the authenticity (or not) of Roddy’s voice, you might find it interesting to look up the real life case of Pierre Rivière.” I did, and it’s an intriguing story… here’s a link.

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Historical Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. Having enjoyed Cornwell’s Viking sword-and-sandals novel, The Last Kingdom, I’m intrigued at what seems to be something of a departure for him…

The Blurb says: Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.

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Thriller

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband, who kindly popped a couple of extras in along with the new Burnet. It sounds dark

The Blurb says: Life and death played out over 48 hours. A father intent on being with his young son escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital, knowing he has just one chance for the two of them to start a new life together. Sweet William is a breathtakingly dark thriller that spans forty-eight hours in the life of a desperate father and a three-year-old child in peril. Brilliant and terrifying, this is a debut novel that will stay with its readers long after they finish turning the pages.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, The British Library. The latest in their collection of anthologies of short stories, as always edited by the wonderful Martin Edwards. This one has a twist though – these are all translated… sounds fab!

The Blurb says: Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Hound of Roslin Castle

A true Scottish ghost story

Roslin Castle circa 1820 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The ruins of Roslin Castle sit on the bank of the North Esk river just a few miles south of Edinburgh. The castle dates back to the 14th century, and is built on the site where an even earlier battle was fought between the Scots and English in 1303, during the First War of Independence.

The Battle of Roslin 1303

As the battle hung balanced, an English knight and his great hound fought bravely, but at last the knight was slain by a Scottish warrior. The hound attacked his master’s killer but was slain in its turn by other Scottish soldiers wielding swords and axes. The battle turned – the Scots were victorious and the remnants of the invading English army were sent scuttling homewards…

Later that night as the triumphant Scots caroused, the hound appeared again, howling into the darkness, till the soldiers panicked and fled. Each night the hound returned, howling, searching… until finally one night it came face to face with the man who had slain its master…

No one knows what happened when they met, though no one who heard them ever forgot the terror in the warrior’s screams. All that is known is that the warrior never spoke again… and three nights later, he died.

They say that, when storms are abroad and the wind blasts through the ruins of the castle, the phantom hound can still be heard… howling for vengeance into the darkness of the night…

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

Not scared enough yet? Then here are a few the Fretful Porpentine recommends…

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

The Polar Express – the movie

The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs

The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film…

Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Three Blind Mice by Anonymous

Silence: A Fable by Edgar Allan Poe

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN! 🎃

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

In his youthful hubris, science student Victor Frankenstein decides to create a living being from stolen organic material, part human, part animal. When he succeeds, he is horrified at the hideousness of the creature he has brought into the world, and flees, leaving his monstrous creation to fend for himself. Hiding himself away, the monster learns by observation what it is to be human, to talk, to laugh, to love – and he wants these things for himself. But humans cannot accept someone so hideously different, so he is spurned and reviled everywhere he goes until eventually, in his bitterness and sorrow, his thoughts turn to revenge against the man who so cruelly created and then abandoned him…

Frankenstein’s monster has become such a standard part of our culture, both as a scary stalwart of the horror movie and as a warning reference against mad science, that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and moving the original is. Published when Shelley was only twenty, it’s remarkably mature in its themes, even if the writing occasionally shows her youthfulness in a kind of teenage hyperbole, especially when the subjects of romance or grief are approached.

It is, of course, the ultimate warning against science for science’s sake, untempered by ethical or safety considerations, and that theme seems to become ever more relevant with each passing year. In a world where designer babies are becoming the norm, with scientists gaily manipulating genes confident in their own power to control nature; where others talk blithely of geo-engineering as if they couldn’t accidentally destroy the world in their attempts to save it; where yet others are searching for new weapons, presumably on the grounds that nukes aren’t destructive enough, I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994

But there’s also the human theme of perception and rejection of difference – the inability of man to look past the outer crust and recognise the similarities of the soul beneath. Shelley’s monster is ultimately the most human character in the book, and in the book we can recognise this in a way we can’t in the movies – because although we are told of the monster’s hideousness, we can’t see it with our eyes. So when he tells Frankenstein the story of how cruelly and vilely he has been treated by humanity, we feel utter sympathy for his plight, though surely we must wonder in our secret hearts if we would be able to listen so patiently and empathetically if face to face with this grotesque mockery of the human form. And Shelley tests us – this monster doesn’t remain good: the years of rejection and loneliness distort his soul until it is as deformed and hideous as his body. Can we still sympathise then?

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

Shelley doesn’t labour the theme of man usurping God’s role as creator, though it’s there. At the time of writing, when Christianity would have been universal amongst her readership, there would have been no need – the idea of man aspiring to these heights would have been recognised as blasphemous without it having to be spelled out. But Frankenstein’s punishment is harsh indeed – how different the book would have been had the monster decided to seek a direct revenge against his creator. Instead, Frankenstein is to be slowly tortured by seeing those he loves perish horribly, one by one. In the end, creator and creation are each responsible for the pain and suffering of the other, each knowing with a growing certainty that their fates are inextricably linked.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The story is told by three narrators – Robert Walton, who meets Frankenstein towards the end of his journey, in the form of letters to his sister; Frankenstein himself, as he relates his tale to Walton; and the monster’s own story, as told by him to Frankenstein. The three voices are very different, and for me the most powerful part of the book by miles is the monster’s story. Walton never comes to life for me, but it doesn’t matter since he’s little more than a story-telling device. Frankenstein’s portion can become repetitive, especially when he eternally laments his woes (however justified his lamentations may be), but it is filled also with some wonderful descriptions of the natural world as he travels far and wide across Europe and then into the Arctic in his attempts first to flee his creation and then later to track him down. It’s in Frankenstein’s story (and Walton’s, to some degree) that the “romantic” writing most comes through – the monster’s story and other parts of Frankenstein’s give the book its Gothic elements. There are weaknesses – an unevenness in the quality of the writing at points, a tendency towards repetition, a bit too much wailing and gnashing of teeth – but this is balanced by the power and emotion of other parts of the story. The monster’s ability to master language and writing so thoroughly defies strict credulity, but works within the context of the fable nature of the tale, and undoubtedly allows him to tell his experiences with moving eloquence and great insight.

Mary Shelley

This is another of those classics which I had forgotten just how good it is. The writing may be patchy in parts but overall it’s wonderful, and the themes are timeless and beautifully presented. I listened to it this time round, with Derek Jacobi narrating. His performance is fantastic – I’ve always loved his acting, but actually I think he narrates even better than he acts. The power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points. And he got me through Frankenstein’s sometimes overblown self-pity more easily than I think reading it would have done. A marvellous performance of one of the most influential books ever written – really, what could be better than that?

Book 15 of 90

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

NetGalley Says No!

Rejection Blues!

Several people have been owning up to their saddest NetGalley rejections recently, so I thought I’d confess to mine. I got the idea from the lovely Annie at themisstery.com, so thanks Annie!

I’ve been with NetGalley since February 2013, and in that time have been rejected 92 times! (I’ve been approved for 402 – no wonder my TBR’s in the state it’s in!) Sometimes I know why. I frequently request books from outside my geographical area on the off-chance, and while sometimes this works, it often doesn’t. I’ve also discovered that if I request a book late I’m rejected far more often than if I request it as soon as it’s listed. But sometimes the reasons for rejection are a total mystery to me – keeps me on my toes, though!

A quick look through the 92 shows me that I later acquired 20 of them, either from a different publisher or region on NetGalley, direct from the publisher, or even actually *gasps* buying them. Intriguingly when I look through the rest, very few still excite me. But here are the ones – only seven of them – that I would still like to read. The titles link through to Goodreads if you want to know more about them.

Dear Mr M by Herman Koch – Although I enjoyed The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, I’ve a feeling Koch’s books might start to feel a bit samey after a bit, but I’d still like to read this one.

The General vs The President by HW Brands – this history of Truman, General MacArthur and the debate over using nukes during the Korean war seems to have even more relevance now than it did when I was rejected.

Dictator by Robert Harris – This is book 3 in Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Book 1 – Imperium – is on my TBR, so I’ll almost certainly get to this one at some point.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann – I loved Let the Great World Spin, and the premise of this one still appeals, so I guess it has to go on the wishlist.

Hide and Seek by Jane Casey – the third and final book in Casey’s Jess Tennant series. This fell off my radar when I got rejected, but I really must read it – although it’s aimed at the YA market, this crime series works fine for…ahem… OAs too.

All the Rage by AL Kennedy – I suspect I might hate this, but I feel I should read something by AL Kennedy at some point.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – almost everybody raved about this and, although the premise still doesn’t hugely appeal to me, everybody can’t be wrong. Can they?

So what about you?
If you’re a NetGalley member, what rejections do you regret?

TBR Thursday 139…

Episode 139…

I think the whole idea of trying to reduce the TBR is silly, really. I don’t know why you all obsess about it so much. I mean, in the great global scheme of things, does it really matter whether the TBR goes up or down? Does it? Of course not!

OK, OK! It’s gone up! By 3 – to 219! But I’m sure it’s just a temporary blip – I’ve got loads of time to meet my New Year’s Resolution to get it down to 150 by the end of the year. Stop laughing. STOP LAUGHING!!!

Here’s are a few more I should get to soonish…

Fiction

For the Classics Club. I don’t know why I haven’t read more Robert Louis Stevenson than I have, but it’s time to do something about that…

The Blurb says: Set in 18th-century Scotland, this brooding historical romance unfolds amid the Jacobite Rebellion. A struggle between good and evil begins in the old Scottish castle of Durrisdeer — the ancestral home of the Durie clan — where James Durie, Master of Ballantrae, persists in his lifelong rivalry with his younger brother as well as his relentless quest for the family fortune.

From Durrisdeer, the fast-paced adventure shifts to sea voyages and encounters with pirates, intrigue at the French court and in India, and an attempt to recover buried treasure in New York’s Adirondack Mountains — all leading to a shocking climax in the American wilderness. An engrossing tale played out against the backdrop of three continents, The Master of Ballantrae stands among the most vivid and exciting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales.

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Crime

For the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. A Dr Thorndyke mystery, first published in 1911. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Thorndyke short stories, but this will be my first full-length novel…

The Blurb says: After the great success of his latest expedition, the brilliant archaeologist John Bellingham returns from the sandy tombs of Egypt with enough ancient treasures to fill a wing at the British Museum. He visits a friend for dinner and is told to wait in the study. When the friend arrives, he finds the study empty; Bellingham has vanished into thin air.

When Bellingham does not reappear, the police assume he has met with some fatal accident. Because his will cannot be discharged until the time and place of his death are known, Bellingham’s family calls on the eminent Dr. Thorndyke, whose mastery of the medical arts is second only to his brilliance for crime solving. As he searches for the true reason for Bellingham’s disappearance, Thorndyke discovers a mystery as deep as any pharaoh’s tomb.

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Sci-Fi

For the Classics Club, but I’m hoping this might also fit into the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

The Blurb says: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is set in an urban glass city called OneState, regulated by spies and secret police. Citizens of the tyrannical OneState wear identical clothing and are distinguished only by the number assigned to them at birth. The story follows a man called D-503, who dangerously begins to veer from the ‘norms’ of society after meeting I-330, a woman who defies the rules. D-503 soon finds himself caught up in a secret plan to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

The failed utopia of We has been compared to the works of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. It was the first novel banned by the Soviets in 1921, and was finally published in its home country over a half-century later.

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Horror on Audible

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This is a special Hallowe’en package from Audible, bundling together three classics each with highly-rated narrators. I’m currently listening to a different (brilliant) version of Frankenstein, so will probably pick Greg Wise reading Dracula for my spooky delight… or maybe Richard Armitage reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Just to mention – when the blurb says “three for the price of one” they are talking about members who will get the collection for 1 credit. For non members, this is more pricey – three for the price of three, really.

The Blurb says: Audible presents a special edition of three Gothic tales for the price of one: a brand-new Audible Exclusive recording of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bursting with intrigue, suspense and malice, they resurrect the deepest and darkest of all our fears: that a monster lurks, and it lurks within us.

Introduced by Dr Maria Mellins and Dr Peter Howell, Senior Lecturers in Gothic literature at the University of London, this collection offers additional insight into the three audiobooks, their authors and their legacies.

Starting with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Richard Armitage tells the story of a conflicted man who seeks a remedy to free the monster inside him from the clutches of his conscience. Following his celebrated performances of David Copperfield and David Hewson’s Romeo and Juliet for Audible, Armitage delivers another powerhouse performance as the narrator of this Gothic tale.

Shilling shocker enthusiast Stevenson was celebrated throughout his life. In contrast to Mary Shelley, who was often overshadowed by her husband’s work, Stevenson lived comfortably by his pen.

It was only with the release of Frankenstein that Shelley finally distinguished herself. Frankenstein was groundbreaking in its ability to fuse passion and romance with gore and horror. Narrated by Dan Stevens, who rose to fame through Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast and Legion, the story of science student Victor Frankenstein has been artfully retold. Testing the limits of science, Frankenstein fashions a living being from the conjoined body parts of rotting cadavers. Horrified at the end result, he abandons his monster, leaving him to endure a life of isolation and loneliness. A poignant example of human weakness and our inability to take responsibility for our actions, Frankenstein is both moving and terrifying.

That leads us to the gruesome tale of Count Dracula, the bloodthirsty father of the undead. Narrated by Greg Wise, star of Effie Gray, The Crown and Sense and Sensibility; Greg depicts a young lawyer whose services are hired by a sinister Transylvanian count. Releasing Dracula 80 years after Frankenstein, Bram Stoker was greatly influenced by Shelley’s writing style and similarly propels the story along through diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings. Possessed of grisly imagery and unexpected twists, it’s no wonder that Dracula still manages to shake us to our very core.

All that remains is to offer a note of caution: this collection is not for the fainthearted. Old as these tales may be, do not mistake the unsettling nature of their content.

Grab some popcorn, turn the speakers up and enjoy. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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(Goodness! I’ve just realised these are all ancient! I’ll try to include something from the 21st century next week… 😉 )

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar

The sun never sets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Kumar begins this wide-ranging review of past empires by speculating why interest in empires seems to be growing again. He suggests that firstly, enough time has passed to allow the more recent ones to be assessed more objectively. But secondly, issues such as globalisation and climate change are causing people to question what is the best way to govern – is the nation state really the answer that it seemed to be when the age of empires ground to a halt? Kumar doesn’t directly set out to answer this question. Instead, he looks at five of the most significant recent empires, considering how they were ruled, what were the objectives of the rulers, and what effect being the “load-bearing” part of an empire had on the national spirit of the ruling nations. He also considers the idea that, since most nations are a kind of empire, having won their territory out from an original centre, then perhaps the converse is also true – that empires can seen be seen as a form of nation.

Before he looks at the five recent empires, Kumar starts with a short chapter on Rome, on the grounds that all the later empires were to some degree influenced by its aims and methods of governance. He discusses the importance of citizenship and the use of religion – in Rome’s case, Christianity – to homogenise the different peoples that came under its sway. These are themes he returns to in each of his five chosen empires, showing how they mirrored or differed from Rome in these aspects.

The five main empires covered in the book are the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Russian (later USSR), the British and the French. In each case he starts with a run through of their development and spread – which territories they colonised. These were the least interesting parts for me, and I felt a real need for more and better maps than the book provides. After that, however, I found each chapter became more interesting as Kumar began to look at the methods of rule each empire put into place, showing how this usually arose out of the way the empire developed. So he draws a distinction between those empires which were basically land empires, such as the Russian, with all territories spreading out contiguously from a centre, and overseas empires like the British.

In each case, he then looks at what the rulers saw as the purpose of their empire. Obviously, for some, a major purpose was to do with generating wealth, but beyond that Kumar looks at, for example, the Spanish mission to protect and spread Catholicism, or the French desire to spread their Enlightenment ideals to the territories they controlled. He takes a rather positive view, suggesting many subject territories felt a considerable loyalty to their empire, citing many examples of where they willingly fought in the wars of the central nations. This is a book about rulers, so there’s not much here about how the ‘ordinary’ people may have felt about empire, but certainly he makes a good case for the benefits that often accrued both to the central nations and the subject territories, in terms of both economic and cultural trade.

In his concluding chapter, Kumar looks at the difficulties the central nations have had in rediscovering their own identities following the collapse of their empires. He also discusses neocolonialism and the empire-like status of the superpowers – America, China, and the EU, which he suggests some see as the Habsburg empire resuscitated. And finally he discusses the growth of supranational bodies which take on some of the aspects of empire – the UN, International Courts, even global NGOs.

British Empire 1886

Overall, I found the book interesting and informative. It is rather academic in style but not enough so to make it inaccessible to the casual reader like myself. What caused me a little more difficulty is Kumar’s assumption of a level of prior knowledge. This isn’t a criticism – the book is clearly aimed at people with an existing interest in empire, or people who are formally studying the subject, and it would be impossible to cover such a wide range if every reference had to be explained in depth for newcomers to the subject. However, the result was that I found the chapters on empires I know something about – Habsburg, Russian and, of course, especially the British – were easier to read and absorb, and I took more away from them. The French Empire (oddly) I know little about and so struggled more as Kumar referred to historical events of which I had no real knowledge. But the worst for me was the section on the Ottoman Empire – my knowledge of that one is almost non-existent and I found the chapter hard work to get through and didn’t feel at the end of it as if I had gained much. I would suggest, therefore, that this certainly isn’t a ‘starter’ book for someone wanting an introductory history to the various empires.

However, for anyone with an existing interest in some or all of the empires discussed, it’s a thought-provoking and interesting read – clearly written, informative, and I found Kumar’s arguments convincing. Despite my struggles at some points, I found it an enjoyable read – one that passes over the simple and now somewhat out-dated wholesale condemnation of empire in favour of a more nuanced look at the various forms and degrees of rule and co-operation between the states and territories that made up these ever-shifting entities.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

Tuesday Terror! The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Worse than whomping…

When two young men who are canoeing down the Danube in the middle of a great flood decide to camp for the night on a tiny island, what could possibly go wrong? Time to find out in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call him Jim) and his friend, known only as the Swede, have travelled far along the Danube on a pleasure excursion in a little canoe. They have reached a place where the river splits into three branches, and know that a high flood is due. They decide to continue anyway, both being experienced rivermen and having done many journeys together before. Driven forward by the fast waters and a howling wind, they have some difficulty landing for the night on one of the small temporary islands that spring up in this swampy stretch of the river, but finally they manage it…

Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.

Already Jim has shown that he feels the river as a mighty presence with its own character. At first he sees it as friendly…

How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew up-stream and tried to stop its growing speed!

But once on the island and with night approaching, a strange feeling of dread begins to fall over the travellers. The willows seem to give off a threatening air…

Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain—where we ran grave risks perhaps!

As night sets in, Jim finds himself unable to sleep and wanders out of the camp. By now his imagination – or is it? – is working overtime, and he has come to see the willows as somehow malevolent…

What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night—and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together.

The Swede seems stolidly unimaginative at first and Jim relies on this to keep his dread at bay. But it soon transpires that the Swede, far from being unaffected, is way ahead of Jim in interpreting the strange events… and has come to a chilling conclusion…

…I think I felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want…

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Well, this is a classic for a reason! The descriptive writing is fabulous, and Blackwood gradually builds up an air of creepy menace guaranteed to send shivers down the stoutest spine. Apparently Lovecraft hailed this as the greatest supernatural tale of all, and it’s very clear to see how it influenced his own later weird tales. There is the same suggestion of ancient and malign alien beings, with men caught up as irrelevant victims of a power at which they can only vaguely guess. But, unlike Lovecraft, this doesn’t get bogged down in endless repetitive description – it is novella length but it keeps going at a good pace and builds up to an excellently chilling climax. Nature is used brilliantly, at first as something for man to admire and revel in, and then, gradually, as something immense and uncontrollable, reducing man to tiny insignificance, fumbling to make sense of forces so great that they are incomprehensible to his limited mind. Great stuff – the porpentine highly recommends it!

If you would like to read it, here’s a link, though personally I found it too long to read comfortably online, so downloaded a Kindle version.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Attica Locke

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 138…

Episode 138…

Aha! The Big Drop has begun! The TBR has fallen by an astonishing 2 this week to 216 – see? Totally under control! I don’t know why you ever doubted me…

You’re still judging me, aren’t you?

Here’s the next lot that will move to the Read shelf soon…

Factual

All my Russian reading has led me to think that I really ought to get to know Rasputin better – he sounds like such a fun guy! And this biography is being hailed as pretty much the definitive one…

The Blurb says: A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra’s confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.

But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin’s life and death has remained shrouded in myth. A major new work that combines probing scholarship and powerful storytelling, Rasputin separates fact from fiction to reveal the real life of one of history’s most alluring figures. Drawing on a wealth of forgotten documents from archives in seven countries, Smith presents Rasputin in all his complexity–man of God, voice of peace, loyal subject, adulterer, drunkard. Rasputin is not just a definitive biography of an extraordinary and legendary man but a fascinating portrait of the twilight of imperial Russia as it lurched toward catastrophe.

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Thriller

Courtesy of NetGalley. As if the British Library wasn’t doing enough damage to my TBR with its Crime Classics series, now it appears to be doing a series of Classic Thrillers too…aarghhh!!!

The Blurb says: Leo Selver, a middle-aged antiques dealer, is stunned when the beautiful and desirable Judy Latimer shows an interest in him. Soon they are lying in each other’s arms, unaware that this embrace will be their last.

Popular opinion suggests that Leo murdered the girl, a theory Leo’s wife – well aware of her husband’s infidelities – refuses to accept. Ed Buchanan, a former policeman who has known the Selvers since childhood, agrees to clear Leo’s name. Selver and his fellow antique dealers had uncovered a secret and it is up to Ed to find the person willing to kill in order to protect it.

This exhilarating and innovative thriller was first published in 1976.

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Sci-Fi

Courtesy of NetGalley. From the guy who wrote the fabulous The Martian – need I say more?

The Blurb says: Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of Jazz’s problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself – and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even more unlikely than the first.

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Audible Original Drama

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Audible are spoiling me rotten at the moment with these dramatisations of some of my favourite novels – how could I possibly resist this one? It’s due out on 1st November…

The Blurb says: What begins as a routine journey on the luxurious Orient Express soon unfurls into Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery. Onboard is the famous detective Hercule Poirot and one man who come morning will be found dead, his compartment locked from the inside.

This Audible Original dramatisation follows the train as it is stopped dead in its tracks at midnight. The train’s stranded passengers soon become suspects as the race to uncover the murderer begins before he or she strikes again.

This all-star production features lead performances from Tom Conti (The Dark Knight Rises, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) as Hercule Poirot, Sophie Okonedo (After Earth, Hotel Rwanda and Ace Ventura) and Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, V for Vendetta and Hancock) plus a full supporting cast and even sound effects recorded on the Orient Express itself.

Full cast of narrators includes Walles Hamonde, Paterson Joseph, Rula Lenska and Art Malik.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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