Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“I shall not withdraw,” he said slowly, with a dull, dogged evenness of tone. “I shall not withdraw in any circumstance. I have gone too far,” he went on, raising his hand to check Falmouth’s appeal. “I have got beyond fear, I have even got beyond resentment; it is now to me a question of justice. Am I right in introducing a law that will remove from this country colonies of dangerously intelligent criminals, who, whilst enjoying immunity from arrest, urge ignorant men forward to commit acts of violence and treason? If I am right, the Four Just Men are wrong. Or are they right: is this measure an unjust thing, an act of tyranny, a piece of barbarism dropped into the very centre of twentieth-century thought, an anachronism? If these men are right, then I am wrong. So it has come to this, that I have to satisfy my mind as to the standard of right and wrong that I must accept – and I accept my own.”

* * * * * * * * *

The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care…

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

* * * * * * * * *

Niamh saw the lights change to green and the Mercedes start to turn left across the flow of traffic. And then she was blinded. A searing, burning light that obliterated all else, just a fraction of a second before the shockwave from the blast knocked her off her feet. As she hit the ground, sight returned. She saw glass flying from the broken windows of the [Café] Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, tables and chairs spinning away across the square. As she rolled over, the Mercedes was still in the air. Later she would remember it as being ten feet or more off the ground. But in fact it was probably no more than eighteen or twenty inches. Flaming debris showered down across the Place de la République as the car slammed back on to the road, a ball of flame.

* * * * * * * * *

But the pupils – the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

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From the Archives…

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Behind the Night Bazaar (Jayne Keeney 1) by Angela Savage

A visit to the dark side… 

😀 😀 😀 😀

Jayne Keeney is an Australian woman working as a PI in Bangkok in Thailand. While she is recovering from an injury she received in the course of an investigation, she decides to visit her best friend Didier in Chiang Mai. After a rather strange and disturbing evening in the gay bars behind the Night Bazaar, Didier’s Thai lover, Nou, is found dead and horrifically mutilated. Worse still, Didier is accused of the crime by the police, who shoot him dead, claiming he was resisting arrest. Jayne is determined to clear her friend’s name, so must try to find out who really killed Nou, and why.

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I know the author, Angela Savage, via our blogs, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible. Although Angela has written three novels in this series, this one was her début and is the first one I’ve read.

Despite the PI set-up, the book isn’t really a mystery – we find out who and why quite early on. The real story is about how Jayne navigates her way through the corruption at all levels of society in an attempt to force the authorities to clear Didier’s name. It’s set amid the seamy side of Thai life – prostitution, including child prostitution, police corruption, and foreign sex tourism. Savage pulls no punches, making it something of a grim read, grittier than my personal taste normally runs to. There is also some graphic sex and a sprinkling of strong language.

Didier has been doing outreach work to try to minimise the spread of AIDS not only in the gay community but in the wider Thai society. This has led him to become involved in a project to look at the underlying causes of the massive sex industry in the country and it’s here that the motivation lies. Savage raises some interesting questions, especially around the subject of foreign involvement in the sex industry, as both providers and users, and the attempts of foreign law enforcement agencies to intervene.

To be honest, the little I know about Thailand comes from the various horror stories surrounding sex tourism by sad old perverts and revolting paedophiles that have hit the British news over the decades and I had been hoping that I might get some insights into other aspects of Thai life (I assume there must be some!), but because of the focus of this plot, that wasn’t the case here. So to an extent it reinforced my existing impression of Thailand as a place that I would avoid like the plague. I will be interested to see if the later books in the series will widen the focus to let us see a more enticing side to the country.

It feels very well researched and the picture of this aspect of Thai life feels unfortunately all too believable. The character of Jayne is well developed – she’s strong without having superwoman tendencies, independent but not a loner and, while she’s courageous, we are also allowed to see her fear, which keeps her human and likeable. The writing is very good – happily it’s written in third person, past tense. The story flows well, never dipping into ‘soggy middle’ territory, and Savage manages to keep Jayne’s grief over Didier’s death feeling real without wallowing in the angsty morass so beloved of some of our contemporary crime writers.

Angela Savage

The book paints an excellent picture of how corruption in the police force allows child prostitution and other forms of sex slavery to thrive, but Savage also highlights that not all sex workers are forced into it – many choose the life because they can earn more that way. Without getting overly preachy, Savage through her characters suggests that poverty is the root cause – while I don’t disagree, I felt she took a rather more forgiving approach than I can to parents who sell eight and nine year old girls to the highest bidder, whatever the reason. The foreign sex tourists and the police come off as the baddies – personally I struggled to spot any “goodies”. I was a little disappointed that even Jayne seemed more concerned about Didier’s good name than about the abuse of children, although I do think that’s more realistic than if she’d been portrayed as a moral crusader – a foreign white knight riding to rescue the Thai people from themselves.

The subject matter meant that for me it was more of a thought-provoking read than an enjoyable one. As you may be able to tell from my review, it inspired me to rant about the sexual exploitation – no, let’s call it what it is – the rape of children (even though I’ve edited out about five hundred words of the worst of my frothing at the mouth – kind of me, I’m sure you’ll agree). But on the whole, Savage gets a good balance between the examination of the social issues and the telling of an interesting story, and none of the grittier elements feel gratuitous or voyeuristic. A well-written and intriguing look at the seamier side of Thai culture that will appeal to those who like their crime fiction dark. Recommended, and I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a mysterious notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, the villagers don’t take it very seriously.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

The prevailing feeling is that this is a rather odd invitation from Miss Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, perhaps to some kind of murder mystery evening. So all her friends decide to show up at the appointed time. Miss Blacklock knows nothing about it but, being a sensible woman, she realises the villagers are likely to descend on her and makes preparations for a little drinks party anyway. Once everyone is assembled, a shocking event occurs and the end result is that a man lies dead. It’s up to the police, ably assisted by Miss Marple, to find out who he was and why he died…

This has always been one of my favourite Christies, mainly because I thinks she excels herself in both plotting and characterisation. It also has one of the best beginnings, as Christie ranges round the village introducing us to all the characters by means of telling us which newspapers they routinely have delivered. Newspapers in Britain have always been such an indicator of class, social position, education, political standpoint; and Christie uses this brilliantly to very quickly telegraph (no pun intended) the social mix of the village.

Published in 1950, this is post-war Britain, and the first chapter gives us a little microcosm of British middle-class society of the time – old soldiers, the traditionally rich fading into genteel poverty, the new business classes taking over as the wealthy ones, women beginning to find their place in the workforce, people displaced from their original homes forming a mobile and fluctuating population, so that even in villages neighbours no longer know all the long histories of their neighbours – now people have to be judged on what they choose to reveal of themselves. Anyone who thinks Golden Age crime fiction has nothing much to say about society should read this chapter and think again. Christie, of course, understood totally that crime fiction is first and foremost an entertainment though, so all this information is transmitted with warmth and humour, and all in the space of a few hundred words. Many modern crime writers would probably take 150 pages, bore us all to death, and still not produce anything half as insightful…

Agatha Christie

There is one aspect of the book I don’t enjoy and that’s the treatment of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s foreign maid. A war refugee from Eastern Europe, she is portrayed with a kind of cruel casualness – her anxiety dismissed as hysteria, her horror stories of her life in the war dismissed as either exaggeration or with an attitude of contempt for her not having the British stiff upper lip. It’s odd, because this book also has some of Christie’s kindest and most moving characterisations – poor old Bunny, Miss Blacklock’s companion, who shows us all the tragedy of the genteel poor at that time, and the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, never openly described as lesbian, but portrayed with great sympathy and warmth.

I’m not going to give any details of the plot for fear of spoilers. However, this is entirely fair play – not only are all the clues in there, but Miss Marple kindly summarises them all towards the end to give us one last chance to solve it for ourselves. I’ve read this one so often over the years that I know whodunit and why and now I can more or less anticipate the clues before we get to them, but I think I was suitably baffled first time I read it. Even knowing how it all works out, I still find it an immensely enjoyable read, allowing me to admire Christie’s skill at its remarkable height.

Joan Hickson

This time around I listened to the wonderful Joan Hickson narrating it. She really is perfect for the Miss Marple books. Her old-fashioned accent is just right, and she completely gets the tone of the books – the mixture of tragedy and humour, the sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses, the little romantic interludes. In this one she made me laugh with the younger characters and moved me to tears with Bunny’s story (I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Bunny – she’s one of my favourite Christie characters). Marvellous stuff – the ideal partnership of author and narrator. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 144…

Episode 144…

All fired up and ready to smash the TBR! You’re going to be amazed by how dramatically it’s going to fall over the next few weeks! You do believe me, don’t you? Don’t you?? It’s currently standing at 214.

Here are a few I’ll be getting to very soon…

Crime

(Isn’t that the most dreadful cover ever produced? Since the title is well-nigh illegible, it’s Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.) For the Classics Club and because I’m fed up with being the last person living who hasn’t read it…

The Blurb says: In Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world – where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film, Strangers on a Train launched Highsmith on a prolific career of noir fiction and proved her mastery of depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday contemporary life.

* * * * *

Vampire!

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband. I was sent an unsolicited copy of this. Normally, I avoid vampire stories like the plague (Hmm! Is that a pun, I wonder?). But I’ve read a few Saraband publications recently, a couple of them well outside my comfort zone, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all, so will they be able to do it again? We’ll see…

The Blurb says: “A flint-hard, gorgeously written nightmare.” Laird Barron. One night in 1980, a man becomes a monster. Travis Stillwell spends his nights searching out women in honky-tonk bars on the back roads of Texas. What he does with them doesn’t make him proud – it just quiets the demons for a little while. But when he crosses paths with one particular mysterious pale-skinned girl, he wakes up weak and bloodied, with no memory of the night before. Finding refuge at a lonely motel, Travis develops feelings for the owner, Annabelle, but at night he fights a horrible transformation and his need to feed. A riveting new vampire story for fans of Cormac McCarthy, Joe Hill and Anne Rice.

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Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. This sounds wonderful, so I really hope it lives up to my high expectations – fingers crossed!

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.

* * * * *

Factual on Audio

Off to Antarctica for the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge. What little I know about Shackleton comes from the old Channel 4 production starring Kenneth Branagh, and I seem to have forgotten everything about it! So this might read as much like an adventure story as a factual book to me – I’m hoping so, anyway…

The Blurb says: The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, “defined heroism.” Alfred Lansing’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book — with over 200,000 copies sold — has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance’s fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Of chimps and humans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.

While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.

The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.

William Boyd

Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.

This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.

While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.

Harriet Walter

For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Friday Frippery! The Story of a Year in Books 2017…

The Assassins…

(Last year I created a story  – if it could be dignified by that name – using the titles of all the books I’d reviewed in the year… in the order I reviewed them! I couldn’t resist seeing if I could do it again this year. My twin obsessions of the year – the Russian Revolution and vintage crime – meant there could only really be one theme…)

Having prepared her design for murder, she began to plan the selection day when the final victim would be chosen. Shunning poison lest the dead wake, she had concealed a bar of cast iron under the headgear she had stolen from Party HQ, the President’s hat – it would be gory no doubt, but effective. She shuddered as she remembered the disaster of the death on the Riviera when the sandlands seemed full of the beautiful dead radio girls, who in fact came round an hour or so later and took bloody revenge on their would-be assassin. Not the Party’s finest hour! No, her mission would be more like the crime at Black Dudley Animal Farm, brutal but certain.

She jumped on her crimson snowmobile and sped to the Volga, where her colleague Maigret and Commissar Titian’s boatman were waiting. The boatman was singing…

(Some music to set the tone – if this doesn’t make you want to throw a revolution, nothing will!)

Hurriedly checking the traveler’s guide, “To Spacevski Prospekt, quickly!” she cried, aware of the irony that that was where the death of Kingsovovichskipopov had sparked the revolution in the first place.

“Ah, Maigret” she said, spotting an extra traveller. “If it isn’t our mutual friend Lorna, one of the good people!”

Maigret and the tall woman settled in the boat. Maigret said “So, FFskova, is it true you’re planning the massacre of mankind?”

“Shhh!” FFskova hissed, glancing round to make sure no members of the White Guard were within earshot. The dry tone of her voice admonished him. “You’ll find out soon enough – I’ll let the dead speak for themselves.”

As they jumped off the boat at Spacevski Prospekt, the time machine on her wrist warned her that Rebecca would soon be arriving on the 12:30 from Croydon. It would have been a dangerous crossing after the accusation that had been made against her, but hopefully she would have brought with her the legacy that had justified her committing the ABC murders. A siren sounded, sending momentary shivers down FFskova’s spine, but she realised it was simply to warn drivers that the cone-gatherers were clearing the traffic cones left after the recent roadworks.

“Sometimes I’d rather be the devil than remember my part in the bloody history of the Russian Revolution,” she thought, “especially the horrific episode of the Cheltenham Square murder. Maybe I should give up being an assassin and run off to the island of Dr Moreau with the tsar of love and techno!” But she knew that if she did she’d be no better than a dead woman walking. Her priest, Father Thomas More, had told her to do penance but she knew it was too late for that. Her face white, tears dropped from her eyes down over her distinctive facial scar. Weather forecasts predicted worsening of the ice which covered the valley. Of fearful thoughts her head was suddenly full.

“Oh, Lorna Doone!” she cried to her old friend. “See what I have done! I feel I should give up the ghost!” “Marriage is the answer,” interrupted the old sexist, Maigret. “We should be able to find you a decent man in that new dating bureau, the House of Names,” he said. She said, as an aside to Lorna, “Metaphorically speaking, Maigret takes a room in the last kingdom, silly old dinosaur! Never mind – I’ve been in England often enough to know how to keep a stiff upper lip.” Jeeves, Maigret’s chauffeur, arrived and, hopping in, Maigret and Lorna drove off.

And then there were none but FFskova herself… and the follower, Lord Fibonacci, who mistakenly thought he hadn’t been spotted. FFskova quickly batted him over the head with the iron bar – a necessary evil but, given his unsavoury reputation as a buddy of Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen, scarcely a people’s tragedy. She knew that she could rely on the Party to provide testimony if she were ever suspected of the murder of the vanishing lord. Perhaps it would go down as one of those miraculous mysteries, or perhaps with luck the tediously annoying Doctor Zhivago would be framed for the murder, the lodger who so annoyed Lenin. The dictator had been saying only yesterday that his lodger better stop spouting depressing Russian poetry or else…

You should have left,” she murmured to the corpse as she shoved it silently into the Volga, “if not for your own sake, then for the comfort of others.” She wasted no further thought on the gowk. Storm clouds were gathering and the river was racing, lessening still further the chances of the police ever finding Fibonacci.

* * * * *

Once the plane had finished the long drop and landed, FFskova saw Harriet disembarking. “Where’s Rebecca?” she asked.

Harriet said with sadness, “Her last job was particularly gruesome, killing all those policemen. After the end of the affair, Rebecca became she who was no more. Her sanity gone, she kept repeating the old nursery rhyme ‘one, two, buckle my shoe‘ till we had to have her incarcerated in the home for Seriously Befuddled Communist Gentlewomen. Now she wanders with her birdcage, walking endlessly around the corridors, murmuring ‘you will know me‘, which is ironic since she doesn’t know herself. I’m afraid it’s the story of classic crime. In 100 books, such is the fate of those destroyed by this job.”

The malice of waves beat against the banks of the Volga. “The word is murder,” FFskova said bitterly. “This Russian Revolution has turned us all into cop haters. A gentleman in Moscow told me it feels like days without end there. One day history will give its verdict. Of twelve of us who were chosen, five are dead, four officially insane, and last I heard, Galina had run off to kill a mockingbird, which makes me think she’s a little doolally too…”

“Indeed, that sounds like a portrait of a murderer. But at least we don’t do it for treasure! Is land worth all this, though? Even the great motherland? I am tired of the unwomanly face of war.” Harriet shook her head despairingly.

“Oh well, never mind!” said FFskova, popping a chocolate truffle into her mouth and cheering up. “We have continental crimes to commit! Put on your disguise – the minister’s black veil and your sword – and let’s get going to Munich. Lenin is a force of nature as you know, and we must carry out his bloody project – Operation Bluebird.” “Bluebird?” said Harriet. “So innocuous sounding! The man is as delusional and conceited as Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows! His visions of empire are as monstrous as anything dreamed up by Frankenstein!” She put on the veil and slung the golden sabre over her shoulder, and they started off on their journey.

(FFskova and the team in basic training)

* * * * *

Some hours later in Munich, the two assassins stuffed four white bodies into the vanishing box which formed part of their kit. The Party would arrange for the corpses to be discovered at the site of the accident on the A35 which they were currently arranging. Meantime, Harriet prepared to go off to commit a murder on the Orient Express, while FFskova got ready to rush back to Moscow to organise a death at the President’s lodging – Lenin had made it clear the pesky Zhivago had to go. Before they parted, FFskova issued some final instructions.

“We shall meet again at Northanger Abbey once this is all over and we have at last reached the end. Of the website for online assassin lessons, there will be no further need. We shall get rid of all copies including the master. Of Ballantrae, we must never speak – that secret foundation was all the idea of Pietr the Latvian, but now all our enemies are eliminated, there will be no need for the genetically modified, man-eating sweet Williams after all.”

And so at last they retired from assassining, leaving a string of crimes unsolved. Soon the assassin training program was unplayable. Lies were told to explain the foreign bodies, and the police, being mere fools and mortals, were left baffled, although FFskova ever afterwards found it hard to look a police officer in the eye. “Of Osiris,” she reminded Harriet, “we must never speak – that code name for the mistletoe murder and other stories of horrific deaths must remain forever secret, known only to us and my secret lover, the man they call the Catcher.” In the rye bottle, Harriet found a welcome oblivion in the years to come, but no alcohol was ever strong enough to dull FFskova’s mental anguish. Only chocolate could do that…

The Catcher

>>> THE END <<<

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

New Year’s Resolutions…

So! Last year at this time I set myself some reading resolutions for 2017. Time to see just how badly I did! And then to gird myself anew for the fray… I shall nevah surrendah!

The 2017 Results

Right, you lot! Last year’s display of giggling was totally unseemly. Please try to behave in a more civilised fashion this year. That includes you! Yes, you! Anyone who chuckles will be sent to the Headmaster’s office, is that clear??

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 36 books during the year and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 30 to 20, none of which are overdue.

The Result: Hmm! Well, I reached 36 in May, so it’s fair to say that didn’t go so well. The final utterly outrageous total is 88! On the upside, if there is such a thing, the total outstanding is 32 which at least means I’ve read or abandoned almost as many as I’ve received. But 20 of the outstanding ones are overdue. Hmm!

2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

The result: I succeeded! I succeeded!! 13! I feel so good! I think this may be the first bookish resolution I’ve ever achieved!

3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total from 181 to 150.

The Result: Yes, well, I think we all know the result of this one. The figure at the end of the year is 215.

b) Read at least 35 books that have been on the TBR since 2015 or earlier.

The Result: I’m actually almost ashamed to admit to this one. I’ve read a paltry 9 of the books that have been on the TBR since 2015 or earlier. 

c) Read at least 50 books that went onto the TBR in 2016.

The Result: And I only managed 26 of the books on the TBR that were left over from 2016. Not good, is it? It’s all the review copies! If I only read 120-ish books a year and I take 80+ review copies, well… even I can do the maths!

4) Read 20 Classics

The Result: Smashed it out of the park! 22, and that doesn’t even include any of the Golden Age crime I’ve been reading. I’m declaring this one a major success!  

5) Other Stuff

I didn’t set targets for these, but aimed to read several from each.

The Result:

Science Fiction – 5
Around the World Challenge – 17
Catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed – 9
Reading the Russian Revolution – 12

A mixed result but I’m pleased about the Around the World and Russian challenges, so I’m going to call this a success too.

Woohoo! 3 out of 5 achieved! The major problem remains the dreaded review copies and getting to the older stuff on the TBR, but otherwise I’ve done far better than I expected. (Admit it – better than you expected too, you cynic! 😉 )

* * * * *

Resolutions for 2018

Here goes! I’m going to try to be realistic again this year, because I actually quite like succeeding in achieving at least some of my resolutions! But let’s start with the killers… the review copies and the TBR…

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Okay, I’m going to set a target of accepting no more than 48 for review. I’m also setting a target to read at least 48, so my backlog at the end of the year should be no more (and hopefully less) than it is at the end of 2017 – i.e., 32.

2) Reducing the TBR

Yes, I know! But this year I mean it! So, what I’m thinking is if I reduce the backlog of the old stuff that’s hanging around and add less than I read, then it should obviously go down, right? Right?? So my plan is simple…

a) Read at least 72 books that are on the TBR at the end of 2017

b) Buy no more than 36 books during the year *faints*

c) The TBR target for the end of the year will be 170. And the target for the overall figure, TBR plus wishlist, currently standing at a ridiculous 415, will be 360.

3)  The Challenges

That just leaves my ongoing challenges. There are enough books on the existing TBR/wishlist to achieve all of these without adding any more, so this ought to be perfectly feasible, especially since some books will fit into more than one category.

a) Reading the Russian Revolution – 5 books to go. I plan to finish this challenge around April/May.

b) Great American Novel Quest – I’m planning to restart this properly once the Russian challenge is finished, with a low target of just 4 books this year.

c) Classics Club – to stay on track with this, I need to read 24 books this year (and start tackling at least some of the longer ones).

d) Around the World in 80 Books – about halfway through this one and averaging 20 books a year, so that will be this year’s target too.

e) Murder, Mystery, Mayhem – Going for 20 books this year. At that rate, this will be a five year challenge. 

4) Other stuff

I’m not setting targets for anything else, but hope to fit in some more re-reads and do a bit more catching up with authors and series I’ve enjoyed.

Wish me luck!

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Adolescence is lousy…

😐 😐 😐

A rich, privileged teenage boy moans, whines and whinges for roughly forty-eight hours.

I had high hopes of this one. Either it would stun me by being wonderful and achieving that rare feat for a mid-twentieth century book of actually deserving its status as a classic, and I’d have the joy of writing a glowing review; or it would be as dire as I anticipated and I’d have the even greater fun of mocking it mercilessly.

Sadly, it’s neither. It’s merely a lengthy character sketch of a depressed teenager. Fine, but not scintillating fun, as anyone who has had to spend much time in the company of depressed (or even undepressed) teenage boys will know.*

It’s very well done. The character of Holden Caulfield feels believable and Salinger maintains his (annoying) voice without a blip throughout. It made me laugh – well, sorta smile, at least – several times and even made a tear spring to my eye… once. But mostly it bored me.

JD Salinger

I could, I suppose, chunter on about how it says something about the time of writing – like, for example, that it foreshadowed the beginning of the post-WW2 cultural upheavals, or that it was the era when authors began to mistake the parroting of verbally-challenged swearing for literary merit, or something. But that would be kinda phony, goddam** it, because really I don’t think it says anything terribly deep about anything much. Or else I was just too bored to notice.

Well, that’s a little unfair, maybe. I think it does say something about how rotten it is to be a teenage boy, especially when forced to deal with one of life’s tragedies. But I think it’s a bit sad (and perhaps typical of the then American obsession with psychoanalysis) that what seemed to me like Holden’s perfectly normal feelings and mini-rebellion were implied to be some form of mental illness. If so, then I guess we have to assume that being a teenager is a form of lunacy… hmm!

Yep… got nothing more to say about this one.

Book 19 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* That comment’s a bit phony – I worked with teenage boys for years, depressed and undepressed, and found them all far, far, more fun than poor Holden. And less whiny.

** That’s the way Holden spells “goddamn” – odd, isn’t it? Makes me think of some kind of weird matriarchal sheep deity…

The Queen of Sheepa by Will Bullas
Yes, there truly is an image of everything on the internet…

Your invite to a Christmas Feast…

…with an international flavour…

These are all dishes that are traditionally eaten at Christmas, apparently.
Pull up a chair, dig in, and enjoy!

C

Czech Republic

Vánoční rybí polévka
(Christmas Fish Soup)

H

Hungary

töltött káposzta
(Stuffed Cabbage)

R

Rwanda

Goat Meat Kebabs

I

Iraq

Pacha
(Sheep’s head, trotters and stuffed tripe – yummy! *faints*)

S

South Korea

Bulgogi
(Marinated barbecued beef)

T

Trinidad & Tobago

Baked Ham

M

Mexico

Tamales
(Dough stuffed with pork and salsa, wrapped in corn husks)

A

Australia

Pavlova
(Meringue topped with whipped cream and fruit, especially berries)

S

Sweden

Risgrynsgröt
(Rice pudding dusted with cinnamon and with an almond hidden inside)
NB Apparently you must put a dish of risgrynsgröt outside the front door on Christmas Eve for the Christmas elf, or he will become mischievous…

* * * * *

Oh, and don’t forget the

Chocolate Liqueurs

(Thanks to the lovely Anne at I’ve Read This for unwittingly providing the inspiration for this post, and to the astoundingly mischievous Vince Carrola for unwittingly providing the music!)

🤶MERRY CHRISTMAS!🎅

The Final Countdown 2017 plus Quarterly Challenges Report…

TBR Year-End Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So, time for 2017’s final count to see how I did over the year…

Well, although the total has obviously gone up over the year, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. In August I started my new Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge to read all 102 books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books – or at least as many of them as I can acquire. There are currently 76 of these in the overall total, and I’m proposing to take around four years to complete this challenge. The same applies to the Classics Club which has another four years to run and accounts for roughly another 70 books. So the underlying TBR problem is actually a mere 279, which I think shows my book habit is not spiralling out of control…

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve only been on a couple of trips since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I sailed with Long John Silver and the crew to Treasure Island, crossing the Atlantic which is one of the locations on the Main Journey (the places Phineas Fogg visited or travelled through in the original book, Around the World in 80 Days). And then I took a detour across the Arctic with Frankenstein in pursuit of his monster.

Since it’s the end of the year, here’s how the Main Journey is going so far…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice – Titian’s Boatman
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay – Selection Day
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea – A Dangerous Crossing
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands – Days Without End
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean – Treasure Island
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland – Dead Wake
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

To see the full challenge including all the detours, click here.

39 down, 41 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

So far, I’ve read nineteen from my Classics Club list – a little behind schedule, but not worryingly so. In this last quarter, I’ve read five…

  1. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – 5 stars for this Scottish classic – an exciting adventure but also a great exercise in characterisation.
  2. Foundation by Isaac Asimov – hugely influential on the sci-fi genre but unfortunately showing its age a little – just 3 stars.
  3. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – 5 stars for this masterpiece of “mad science”.
  4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – 4 stars for one of the earliest dystopian novels that inspired many later classics like Brave New World and 1984.
  5. The Catcher in the Rye – review will appear next week, so I’ll keep you in suspense till then…

19 down, 71 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Russian Revolution

The original plan was to finish this challenge by the end of the year, but I still have a few books that I haven’t managed to read yet, so it will continue until spring. I’ve reviewed three this quarter, none of which were on the original list. I’ve also read a biography of Rasputin which I’ll be reviewing soon. To see the full challenge, click here.

10. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – this is a collection of oral histories from some of the women who served on the Soviet front line during WW2. While I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, I had some reservations about the author’s bias affecting her methodology. 3 stars.

11. The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary – I loved this wild ride in a stolen Rolls Royce across post-revolutionary Russia. It’s a rip-roaring adventure story first and foremost, but 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. 5 stars.

12. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – this dystopian novel looks at the destruction of the individual in increasingly regimented totalitarian societies. Written in 1920, it seems remarkably prescient and was the first novel to be banned by Soviet censors, remaining unpublished in Zamyatin’s native country until 1988, during the period of glasnost. 4 stars.

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read and reviewed four books for my newest challenge. To see the full challenge, click here.

7.  Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith – This is an “inverted mystery” where the bulk of the story rests on whether and how the murderer will be caught. It’s also a psychological study of the murderer and of all the other people in the house. 5 stars.

8.  Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes – this is a variation on the country house mystery, this time in the enclosed environment of a University college. Unfortunately, the perpetual intellectual snobbery and failure to move the plot along meant that I abandoned it at the 40% mark on the “life’s too short” principle. 1 star.

9.  Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – the famous Maigret’s very first outing. While not as strong as some of the later novels in the series, I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become. 3 stars.

10. The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman – this features Freeman’s regular “scientific” detective, Dr Thorndyke, but the main character in this one is the first person narrator, Dr Berkeley. It’s laid out as a traditional mystery and is very well written, full of wit, and with a charming romance for young Dr Berkeley to give it warmth. I loved it. 5 stars.

10 down, 92 to go!

* * * * * * *

A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2018! 😀

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

PD James was one of my favourite crime writers for many years, so much so that for a couple of decades she was one of my elite group of “must read on publication day” authors even back when this meant paying expensive hardback prices rather than waiting for up to a year for the paperback to come out. It’s been a long time though since I revisited her, so I was keen to see if her magic would still work for me in this collection. There are four stories in the audiobook, each quite substantial in terms of length. They were originally written as special short stories for Christmas editions of magazines and newspapers and cover a wide time period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s. As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.

I listened to the audiobook version, with two stories each narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, both of whom give excellent performances. There is also a short introduction, narrated by Agutter, in which James considers the differences between writing in short and long form, and discusses the place of the short story in the history of crime fiction. (I believe there’s a further introduction from Val McDermid in the paper book, but that’s not included in the audio version.)

The Mistletoe Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1995

A country house mystery with the traditional body in the library! This is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a war widow who is visiting her grandmother over Christmas while WW2 is still underway. An unexpected and unpleasant guest arrives and is promptly murdered. The narrator uses her status as a family member to uncover the secrets that led to his death. While very well written, I found this a rather uneasy mix of traditional golden age style with a storyline that felt too modern in its concerns to quite fit that approach. It’s also very dark and somewhat depressing for a Christmas story, I felt. Murder is always fun, but the war aspect and the bleakness of the motivation in this aren’t. I admired this story more than I enjoyed it.

* * *

A Very Commonplace Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1969

This is James at her best. Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged lawyer’s clerk, witnesses something that would be vitally important evidence in a murder trial. But since he was doing something he shouldn’t have been at the time, he finds himself reluctant to come forward. This is a deliciously wicked tale where we see Gabriel twist his conscience into knots to justify his actions – a beautifully constructed psychological study of a weak and not very nice man. James maybe goes a little far at the end, but I found this added the touch of melodrama the story needed to make it into a shivery chiller – perfect seasonal entertainment!

* * *

The Twelve Clues of Christmas narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1996

The first of two stories featuring James’ long-running detective, Adam Dalgleish. In this one, Dalgleish is still a young copper with his name to make. He is driving through the snow to spend Christmas at his aunt’s Suffolk house when he is stopped by a man who asks for his help. The man’s uncle, the curmudgeonly old owner of Harkerville Hall, has apparently committed suicide, but Dalgleish soon finds clues that suggest it may have been murder. Again, James is trying to reproduce golden age style here and openly nods to Agatha Christie, as she also did in The Mistletoe Murder. This one works better in that the motivation is more appropriate to the golden age era, and it’s certainly entertaining, but for me it doesn’t have the depth that James achieves when she sticks more to her own style.

* * *

The Boxdale Inheritance narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1979

Dalgleish is asked to look into an old murder by his elderly godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale. The Canon’s grandfather died of arsenic poisoning many decades ago. His young second wife was tried for the crime but found not guilty. Now she has left the Canon some money in her will, but his conscience won’t let him accept unless he is sure she didn’t acquire it by murder. Again a much more traditionally James-ian story in this one, concentrating more on the psychology of the characters than on clues and tricks, though there’s some of that too. In the short space available, James hasn’t much time to develop a cast of suspects, so Dalgleish’s detection seems a bit too slick. But this is well outweighed by the storytelling and characterisation. Another excellent one to end on.

* * *

PD James

I found it interesting that I enjoyed the two early stories considerably more than the ones from the ’90s. This chimes with my feelings about James’ novels – that she lost her spark towards the end of her career and began to get too involved in ‘issues’ or general ‘cleverness’ at the expense of her real strength – excellent psychological studies. Her ‘gentleman detective’ also started to feel rather out of place among the more realistic police officers of modern crime fiction, and her later books felt somewhat anachronistic – almost out-dated. But she retained her story-telling skills throughout, and this shows through in the later stories from this collection too. Of course, even when she may have gone off the boil a little, a writer of the stature and skill of PD James was still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A thoroughly enjoyable set of stories overall, then, that would work just as well for newcomers as established fans.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Power of Chocolate…

aka My Year in Books…

This is a fun tag created by Adam at Roof Beam Reader. The rules? Pretty simple: answer the questions with books you read this year!

Well, that sounded so delightfully easy, but I had really planned to spend the afternoon carrying out a scientific experiment. So I decided to combine them.

The purpose of the experiment was to prove once and for all whether chocolate has mood-enhancing properties. So first I answered the questions before my medicinal chocolate afternoon snack…

…and then I answered them again afterwards. Here are the results…

 

Well, I think those results are pretty conclusive!

So, for the benefit of my visitors, I hereby pledge to ALWAYS stuff my face with chocolate before preparing blog posts so you only ever have to put up with the mood-enhanced version of FF (except when I’m writing 1-star reviews)…

HAVE A CHOCOLATEY DAY! 😀

TBR Thursday 143…

Episode 143…

I’ve been remarkably restrained in my book acquiring so far this month. Unfortunately after a manic burst of reading for a couple of weeks, I now seem to have slowed to a crawl again. So a moderate drop of just 1 in the TBR – to 217. And unless a miracle happens I’m going to fail to achieve my Goodreads challenge target of 125 – I’d need to finish 10 books before the end of the year. Not impossible… but not likely!

Oh, stop whining, Alice! The simple answer is to read more books…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. Princeton keep offering me books that fall well outside my normal reading range – sometimes they work for me, sometimes they don’t. Will this one? Hmm, we’ll see…

The Blurb says: Curves are seductive. These smooth, organic lines and surfaces–like those of the human body–appeal to us in an instinctive, visceral way that straight lines or the perfect shapes of classical geometry never could. In this large-format book, lavishly illustrated in color throughout, Allan McRobie takes the reader on an alluring exploration of the beautiful curves that shape our world–from our bodies to Salvador Dali’s paintings and the space-time fabric of the universe itself.

The book focuses on seven curves–the fold, cusp, swallowtail, and butterfly, plus the hyperbolic, elliptical, and parabolic “umbilics”–and describes the surprising origins of their taxonomy in the catastrophe theory of mathematician Rene Thom. (FF says: Good gracious!) In an accessible discussion illustrated with many photographs of the human nude (FF says: Eh??), McRobie introduces these curves and then describes their role in nature, science, engineering, architecture, art, and other areas. The reader learns how these curves play out in everything from the stability of oil rigs and the study of distant galaxies to rainbows, the patterns of light on pool floors, and even the shape of human genitals (FF faints). The book also discusses the role of these curves in the work of such artists as David Hockney, Henry Moore, and Anish Kapoor, with particular attention given to the delicate sculptures of Naum Gabo and the final paintings of Dali, who said that Thom’s theory “bewitched all of my atoms.”

A unique introduction to the language of beautiful curves, this book may change the way you see the world.

* * * * *

Pastiche

Courtesy of the author. I was contacted by the publisher on behalf of the author of this one, on the grounds that since I love Holmes and Three Men in a Boat, I might also love this mash-up pastiche. I shuddered and got ready to haughtily refuse… but then I read the “look inside” sample on Amazon and found myself chuckling jollily. I suspect it’s going to be loads of fun…

The Blurb says: 221b Baker St., London, early 1890s. For three Victorian slackers—to say nothing of their dog—becoming Sherlock Holmes’s neighbors is very nearly the death of them. Jerome and his friends are planning a jaunt when Miss Briony Lodge calls at Baker Street. The beautiful young schoolmistress is in deadly danger. But what match are a bank clerk, a lawyer’s assistant, a dog and a novelist for an international gang of desperadoes? None whatsoever. It would take an intellect of Sherlock Holmes’s proportions to set things to rights. Or maybe, perhaps, an otter.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I usually love William Boyd (but sometimes don’t!), so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve been delaying it because I’m currently listening to another Boyd book on audio, Brazzaville Beach – loving it, but for some reason it’s taking me forever to get through…

The Blurb says: A philandering art dealer tries to give up casual love affairs – seeking only passionate kisses as a substitute. A man recounts his personal history through the things he has stolen from others throughout his life. A couple chart the journey of their five year relationship backwards, from awkward reunion to lovelorn first encounter. And, at the heart of the book, a 24-year old young woman, Bethany Mellmoth, embarks on a year-long journey of wishful and tentative self-discovery.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth depicts the random encounters that bring the past bubbling to the surface; the impulsive decisions that irrevocably shape a life; and the endless hesitations and loss-of-nerve that wickedly complicate it. These funny, surprising and moving stories are a resounding confirmation of Boyd’s powers as one of our most original and compelling storytellers.

* * * * *

Bah Humbug!

I have a tradition of watching, reading or listening to A Christmas Carol over the festive season, and like to try out new versions if I can. This is one of Audible’s own full-cast original dramatisations (which regulars will know I’ve been loving this year) and stars the wondrous Derek Jacobi as Dickens (I’m assuming the narrator of the linking bits)…

The Blurb says: ‘If I had my way, every idiot who goes around with Merry Christmas on his lips, would be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. Merry Christmas? Bah humbug!’

Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale of sour and stingy miser Ebenezer Scrooge has captivated readers, listeners and audiences for over 150 years. This Christmas, Audible Studios brings this story to life in an audio drama featuring an all-star cast.

Starring: Sir Derek Jacobi as Dickens, Kenneth Cranham as Ebenezer Scrooge, Roger Allam as Jacob Marley, Brendan Coyle as The Ghost Of Christmas Past, Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost Of Christmas Present, Tim Mcinnerny as The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit, Emily Bruni as Mrs. Cratchit, Jenna Coleman as Belle, Joshua James as Young Scrooge and Hugh Skinner as Fred.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Book 18 0f 90

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

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

Yevgeny Zamyatin

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Clickety click, 66…

…or The Reading Bingo Challenge!

Another year draws to a close, so it must be time for… The Reading Bingo Challenge! I don’t deliberately look for books to read to meet this challenge, but at the end of the year it’s always fun to see how many boxes I can fill. Some of the categories are easy-peasy… others not so much. I’ve achieved a full house in each of the last two years, so the pressure is on…

More than 500 pages

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Following my usual pattern of reading Dickens over Christmas, this category is usually easy to tick off! The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering; and it satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche.

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

A forgotten classic

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. The Classics Club inspired me to try to read some Scottish classics that I should probably have read long since. This book about three sisters finding their way through the restrictive social codes of the early 20th century was one, and a great one that deserves to be unforgotten!

A book that became a movie

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. I’ve been going on about this great book ever since I read it, so last time (maybe)! This is the story of a family who begin to suspect that their lodger may be a notorious serial killer. Set in the London of Jack the Ripper, the book inspired Hitchcock’s brilliant silent movie of the same name. Fab combo – read it, then watch it!

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth… or is he The Avenger?

Published this year

Sweet William by Iain Maitland. A very recent read, this is about a convicted killer who breaks out of his secure mental hospital to run off with his three-year-old son, sweet William. Dark and disturbing with touches of the blackest black humour, it’s a fabulous piece of writing with one of the best drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time.

With a number in the title

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. The book that inspired my new Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge and finally pushed my TBR into the stratosphere. A must-read for anyone who wants to read some vintage crime but doesn’t know where to begin, but also great for the more knowledgeable reader too, who will still find plenty of anecdotes to entertain.

Written by someone under 30

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham. Allingham, a future Queen of Crime, was only 25 when this was published in 1929. It’s the first appearance of her long-running detective, Albert Campion, though he’s very different in this to what he would later become. Not her best, but always interesting to see how successful series begin.

A book with non-human characters

Animal Farm by George Orwell. Regulars will be only too aware of this year’s Russian obsession on my blog. This allegorical tale was one of the first of the year. Mind you, the way the year has gone, I’m not sure it really counts as having non-human characters – certain politicians are making the pigs look like a much higher stage of evolution…

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

A funny book

The Vanishing Lord by Lucy Brazier. Second in Lucy’s PorterGirl series, this farcical look at life in one of our prestigious universities is full of murder, mayhem and sausage sandwiches. Though not necessarily in that order…

A book by a female author

D’you know what? I hate this category. It suggests that there’s something odd about female authors or that they need special support because they’re such delicate little flowers. Nope! So I’m changing it for this and future years to…

A science fiction or fantasy book

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells. There are some pretty horrific images in this novella – hardly surpising, perhaps, since it’s one in the line of books that looks at the dangers of mad science untempered by ethics. Here, Wells uses the subject of vivisection to consider questions of evolution and man’s relationship to his evolutionary forebears.

A mystery

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. One of the highlights of the reading year for me has been discovering the Hugh Fraser narrations of Agatha Christie’s books on Audible. He does a fab job, especially with the Poirot books and it’s encouraging me to revisit some of these true classics of the mystery genre. This one, about a serial killer of sorts, is one of the best…

A one-word title

Penance by Kanae Minato. I haven’t read much Japanese crime fiction, but am always intrigued and a bit discombobulated when I do. This one tells the tale of a group of women who were witnesses in a murder case when they were schoolgirls. The story shows how the shadow of that event has affected each of their lives…

Free square

Treasure Island: An Audible Original Drama. Not exactly a book, nor even an audiobook. This is a full-cast dramatic adaptation – a thing Audible seems to be getting into in a big way. Hurrah! The cast of this throw themselves into it with glee, and nothing has given me more pleasure bookishly this year than being marooned… maroooooned, I tell ‘ee… with Long John Silver and the lads for a few hours.

A book of short stories

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards. Most of the short stories I’ve read this year have been the vintage crime anthologies that are part of the British Library Crime Classics series. This is one of my favourites – a collection of “impossible” crimes – locked room mysteries, etc. Beautifully baffling!

Set on a different continent

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Set in modern-day Bombay or Mumbai (Adiga uses them interchangeably), this tale of sibling rivalry is tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. I find Adiga tends to give a more nuanced picture of India than a lot of contemporary authors, balancing the positives with the negatives.

Non-fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Larson gives a riveting account of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating. A perfect balance of the personal and the political.

First book by a favourite author

The Time Machine by HG Wells. Wells’ second entry on the list – I’ve been having a bit of a Wells-fest recently! On the surface, this one looks at the far-distant future of humanity, but in reality it has just as much to say about the current concerns in Wells’ own society – evolution (again), communism, science. But first and foremost, it’s a great adventure yarn.

Heard about online

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton. This category could apply to just about every book I read, but this was one that I only came across because of other bloggers’ reviews. A beautifully written collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, they build together to create a somewhat nostalgic picture of a way of life that is passing, and to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future…

A best-selling book

Munich by Robert Harris. This is a lightly fictionalised account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling.

From the bottom of the TBR pile

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore. In a sense, this has been on my TBR all my life, since my Dad always used to say it was his favourite book. It certainly isn’t mine, but happily I enjoyed this romantic adventure set in 17th century Exmoor more than I expected to.

Based on a true story

The Long Drop by Denise Mina. This marvellous fictionalised account of the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s, won my award for the Crime Fiction Book of the Year. Mina brilliantly evokes the Glasgow of that era – the places, the people, the ever-present threat of violence…

A book a friend loves

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys. Our very own Cleo from CleopatraLovesBooks appears in a cameo role in this book – she won the honour at a charity auction. In truth, I probably wouldn’t have read it but for that, so I was delighted when I loved this historical fiction set on  a ship taking immigrants to Australia just before WW2 began.

A book that scared me

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. A novella really but packing plenty of spinetingling power! 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? Apart from the ancient and malign alien beings, that is! Sometimes, books are classics for a reason…

A book that is more than 10 years old

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Spoiled for choice this year, so I’m going with this classic because I’d forgotten just how good it is and because next year, 2018, is its 200th anniversay.  I listened to the wonderful narration by Derek Jacobi. So much more than sci-fi or horror, this is a book that looks deeply into the darkness of the human heart…

The second book in a series

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. Second in the excellent Sam Wyndham series, set in colonial India just after WW1. When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham manages to get himself invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating…

A book with a blue cover

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. On the face of it a crime novel, the quality of the writing and characterisation, the authenticity of the setting and the intelligence of the structure all raise it so that it sits easily in the literary fiction category at the highest level. I even preferred it to Burnet’s Booker-nominated His Bloody Project

* * * * * * *

Bingo! Full House!

 

The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

I’ve read a couple of Thorndyke short stories before, but this was my first full length novel, and it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Because of the heavy emphasis on Thorndyke being a scientific investigator, I thought it might be rather dry; and I knew that Freeman was famous for the “inverted” story, where the reader gets to see the villain commit the crime before watching the detective solve it. But this novel is laid out as a traditional mystery and is full of wit, with a charming romance between Berkeley and Ruth to give it warmth. I loved it. Actually, don’t tell anyone but I fell a little in love with young Dr Berkeley myself.

The plot is complex, not so much as to whodunit – the pool of potential suspects is very small – but as to how it was done and perhaps more importantly why it was done in the way it was. There’s a lot in it about Egyptology since several of the characters are linked by their involvement in that field, and a lot more about methods of identifying bodies when there’s not much left of them but bones. The missing man’s will provides another level of complexity, since he specified conditions with regards to where his body should be buried – not easy to fulfil unless his corpse turns up and can be convincingly identified. I believe Thorndyke’s sidekick, Jervis, is usually the narrator of these books, but although he appears in this one he only plays a small part. Berkeley acts as the main sidekick and major character – as a medical doctor he’s ideally placed to act as Godfrey’s representative at inquests, etc.

Challenge details:
Book: 9
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

In his discussion of this story in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards says that “the ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L Sayers – a fervent admirer of Freeman – deplored it.” Edwards also says “the prose lacks sparkle”. Oh dear! It appears I have to disagree with both Sayers and Edwards – I loved the elegance of the prose, which reminded me quite a lot of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth is a lovely love interest – she’s humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. She feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911, and Berkeley’s initial admiration is of her brain and character rather than of her looks or feminine delicacy. And Berkeley’s own realisation that he’s falling in love is done with a lot of beautifully self-deprecating wit and charm. Considering Ms Sayers is responsible for one of the sappiest romances in the history of crime fiction, with the adoring Lord Peter Wimsey languishing after his ladylove for several books, I think she has a bit of a cheek, quite frankly! 😉

“’Orrible discovery at Sidcup!”

I turned wrathfully – for a London street-boy’s yell, let off at point-blank range, is, in effect, like the smack of an open hand – but the inscription on the staring yellow poster that was held up for my inspection changed my anger into curiosity.

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

Now, let prigs deny it if they will, but there is something very attractive in a “horrible discovery.” It hints at tragedy, at mystery, at romance. It promises to bring into our grey and commonplace life that element of the dramatic which is the salt that our existence is savoured withal. “In a watercress-bed,” too! The rusticity of the background seemed to emphasise the horror of the discovery, whatever it might be.

In among the more serious characterisation and the scientific stuff, there are a couple of great humorous set pieces that provide a bit of light relief, such as the obstreperous jury member at the inquest, or the maid servant incapable of giving a direct answer to any question, or the various patients Berkeley sees in his professional capacity. Admittedly these smack a little of the golden age snobbery that tends to mock the working classes, but here it’s done with so much warmth I couldn’t find it in me to take offence. I did guess a couple of pieces of the solution but was still in the dark as to motive and exactly how the intricate details of the plot all fitted together until Thorndyke explained all in a typical denouement scene at the end. All together, a very enjoyable read that has left me keen to get to know Freeman and Thorndyke better.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Pursued by a bear…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet – and if he won’t, maybe another member of Shakespeare’s company will…

This is a fairly light-hearted novel set in the world of Shakespeare’s London. Cornwell has undoubtedly taken some fictional liberties with the characters of Will and Richard Shakespeare, so it may not be one for purists, but otherwise it feels well researched to me, though I’m certainly no expert. Richard is a likeable character and it’s his voice that tells us the tale. Will is not likeable and seems to really resent his younger brother, for reasons that I felt were never made totally clear, though I think we are probably supposed to assume that he feels Richard is trying to cash in on his success. Whatever the reason, the story is as much about these two men learning to respect each other as it is about the actual plot. And in the course of the book, Richard falls in love, so there’s a romantic sub-plot too.

The company are rehearsing Will’s new comedy which has been commissioned by their patron Lord Hunsdon to be performed as part of his daughter’s wedding celebrations. Cornwell gives an interesting and often amusing account of how a play would have been developed back in those days, with parts designed around the talents of the regular cast and due attention paid to flattering patrons while ensuring that no reason could be found to ban it. He shows how the powerful Puritan lobby were against theatre in principle, but that Queen Elizabeth’s love of it meant they were frustrated in their desire to have it prohibited. Shakespeare’s company were in the privileged position of having the Lord Chamberlain as patron, but they still had to be careful not to cross the line. Cornwell takes us not only behind the scenes in the playhouse but also into the houses of the rich who could afford private performances, and even into the presence of Elizabeth herself. I found the details of how the plays were staged fascinating, from the creation of costumes to the need for regular intervals to trim the wicks of the candles that were used to provide lighting.

The 1935 film of A Midsummer’s Night Dream – Anita Louise as Titania and I think that might be a young Donald Trump as Oberon…*

Cornwell also goes into detail on the story of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This is quite fun at first. It’s a play I’ve never liked or revisited since being forced to study it while way too young to properly appreciate either the language or the comedy, so I was surprised when Cornwell sparked in me a desire to give it another try. However, unfortunately, after a while the detail becomes too much and somewhat repetitive, and it begins to feel more like a tutorial on the subject than a novel. It also slows the thing down too much – the fairly lengthy book is well over halfway before the main plot of the baddies’ attempt to steal Will’s plays really kicks off. Once it does though, it becomes a fine action romp. There is some violence but on the whole it remains light in tone – not nearly as graphic and gory as the only other Cornwell I’ve read, his Viking-world The Last Kingdom.

Bernard Cornwell

We also get to see the religious persecution of the time – at this period, of the Catholics by the Protestants – but again Cornwell keeps it light though hinting at the darker aspects of it off-stage, so to speak. And the ever present threat of plague is there too – a threat not just to life but to the actors’ livelihoods too, since any upsurge in the plague would lead to a closure of the theatres to prevent its further spread. Cornwell lets us glimpse the crueller aspects of Elizabethan entertainment too – bear-baiting, etc. All of this together adds up to what feels like a realistic picture of life in London at that period. Cornwell opts not to attempt some kind of faux Tudor language – Richard talks in standard English but has what felt to me like reasonably authentic 16th century attitudes for the most part.

After a fairly slow start, then, I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining venture into Shakespeare’s world. I don’t know whether this is a one-off or the start of a new series from the prolific Cornwell, but I’d certainly be happy to read another.

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

*OK, OK, it’s actually James Cagney as Bottom…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year 2017

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…

LITERARY FICTION

As with crime fiction, I’ve been reading a lot more classic literary fiction this year and therefore not so many contemporary books. There’s been something of an obsession in this year’s new releases from big name authors with thinly-disguised polemical ranting over minority liberal concerns, presumably as a reaction to Trump, which has led to me abandoning more books than usual. But I’ve still had some excellent reads – a mix of old and new…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one.

Click to see the full review

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Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. Adiga depicts the poverty and class divisions in contemporary Mumbai quite clearly but he also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. The book tackles some tough subjects, but there’s also humour in there, and happily there’s no whiff of the polemical. And as always Adiga’s writing is pure pleasure to read.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Click to see the full review

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The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

Click to see the full review

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Leningrad, 1937; Kirovsk, 2013; Grozny, Chechnya, 2003. These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. The stories are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of the ballerina Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of an invented painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov, altered repeatedly by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.

Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. A stunning book, that could have so easily won…

The portrait artist must acknowledge human complexity with each brushstroke. The eyes, nose and mouth that compose a sitter’s face, just like the suffering and joy that compose his soul, are similar to those of ten million others yet still singular to him. This acknowledgment is where art begins. It may also be where mercy begins. If criminals drew the faces of their victims before perpetrating their crimes and judges drew the faces of the guilty before sentencing them, then there would be no faces for executioners to draw.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…

A difficult book to summarise since it only slowly reveals where it’s heading and the journey of discovery is the important thing. In the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. It’s a book of two halves, the slowness of the first half well outweighed by the subtlety and power,  and the compelling originality of the language in the second.

Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 


FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017

THE WINNER

This was rather a slow burn for me, in that it continued to grow in stature in my mind long after I’d finished reading it, and I found that some of the images and, in particular, the superb use of language in the second half had taken up permanent residence. It’s not unflawed – the two halves feel a little unbalanced. But it has a lot to say about race in America and says it in a unique and original way, for the most part avoiding the use of liberal polemics that has become so prevalent in contemporary literary fiction. A wonderful story, wonderfully told. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. A book that fully captures the essence of the early blues music which it takes as its central motif…

Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!


Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 142… on Tuesday!

Episode 142…

Well, I wasn’t proposing to do another TBR post till after the annual FictionFan Awards, but I’ve been on a real reading kick for the last few weeks which means I’m powering through the books I had lined up quicker than expected, and I’ve been the lucky recipient of some fab books that I’d really like to fit in before Christmas. (Tragically this means the TBR has leapt up again to 218, but you know what? I don’t care!)

So here they are…

Magical Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. One of my favourites of the lighter crime series, starring stage magician Eli Marks. This isn’t due out till January but I won’t be able to wait till then. (Although the blurb makes this sound like a cosy, in truth the books always seem to me a little too gritty to really fall into that category, and they’re always excellently plotted, usually with a nod to Golden Age style. There is lots of humour in them though.)

The Blurb says: What does Eli Marks have up his sleeve this time? Well, let me tell you, no matter the mystery, his sleight of hand always does the trick.

Eli’s trip to London with his uncle Harry quickly turns homicidal when the older magician finds himself accused of murder. Not Uncle Harry! A second slaying does little to take the spotlight off Harry. Instead it’s clear someone is knocking off Harry’s elderly peers in bizarrely effective ways. But who? The odd gets odder when the prime suspect appears to be a bitter performer with a grudge…who committed suicide over thirty years before. While Eli struggles to prove his uncle’s innocence—and keep them both alive—he finds himself embroiled in a battle of his own: a favorite magic routine of his has been ripped off by another hugely popular magician.

What began as a whirlwind vacation to London with girlfriend Megan turns into a fatal and larcenous trip into the dark heart of magic within the city’s oldest magic society, The Magic Circle. No one does intriguing magic and page-turning humor like John Gaspard. Pick it up and see if you can figure out the trick first.

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Classic sci-fi

Courtesy of the publisher. I’ve loved a few of these Oxford World’s Classics issues of some of the greats of science fiction and horror over the last couple of years, because the introductions really enhance the stories by setting them in their literary and historical context. So I begged a copy of this – one I’ve wanted to re-read for a while…

The Blurb says: One of the most important and influential invasion narratives ever written, The War of the Worlds (1897) describes the coming of the Martians, who land in Woking, and make their way remorselessly towards the capital, wreaking chaos, death, and destruction.

The novel is closely associated with anxiety about a possible invasion of Great Britain at the turn of the century, and concerns about imperial expansion and its impact, and it drew on the latest astronomical knowledge to imagine a desert planet, Mars, turning to Earth for its future. The Martians are also evolutionarily superior to mankind.

About the Series For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Gorgeously Factual

Courtesy of Yale University Press. Somehow I always feel the ideal Christmas season requires a lavishly illustrated, gorgeous factual book and this fits the description perfectly. It’s not just pretty pictures though…

The Blurb says: Beginning with new evidence that cites the presence of books in Roman villas and concluding with present day vicissitudes of collecting, this generously illustrated book presents a complete survey of British and Irish country house libraries. Replete with engaging anecdotes about owners and librarians, the book features fascinating information on acquisition bordering on obsession, the process of designing library architecture, and the care (and neglect) of collections. The author also disputes the notion that these libraries were merely for show, arguing that many of them were profoundly scholarly, assembled with meticulous care, and frequently used for intellectual pursuits. For those who love books and the libraries in which they are collected and stored, The Country House Library is an essential volume to own.

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Award-winning Fiction

The Saltire Society’s Literary Awards are Scotland’s premier awards for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I already had a copy of this one courtesy of the lovely people at Saraband, so was thrilled to hear last week that it has won the award for First Book of the Year 2017. So I really have to bump it up to the top of the TBR… and another gorgeous cover, isn’t it?

The Blurb says: Ian McEwan’s Atonement meets Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in this extraordinary debut.

A novel set between the past and present with magical realist elements. Goblin is an outcast girl growing up in London during World War 2. After witnessing a shocking event she increasingly takes refuge in a self-constructed but magical imaginary world. Having been rejected by her mother, she leads a feral life amidst the craters of London’s Blitz, and takes comfort in her family of animals, abandoned pets she’s rescued from London’s streets.

In 2011, a chance meeting and an unwanted phone call compels an elderly Goblin to return to London amidst the riots and face the ghosts of her past. Will she discover the truth buried deep in her fractured memory or retreat to the safety of near madness? In Goblin, debut novelist Dundas has constructed an utterly beguiling historical tale with an unforgettable female protagonist at its centre.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or NetGalley.

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

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