The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 153…

Episode 153…

The drop in the TBR continues for the sixth week in a row – down 1 to 218! OK, maybe not the biggest dive in the world, but still…

Here’s another batch of some that are teetering on the edge…

Short Stories

Courtesy of Pushkin Press via NetGalley. The only Chekhov I’ve read is one short, and pretty dire, detective story, (though I’ve enjoyed performances of some of his plays), so I’m hoping this collection will convince me his reputation as a master of the short story is deserved…

The Blurb says: New translations of the greatest stories by the Russian master of the form.

Chekhov was without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its untidy complexity. His short stories, written throughout his life and newly translated for this essential collection, are exquisite masterpieces in miniature.

Here are tales offering a glimpse of beauty, the memory of a mistaken kiss, daydreams of adultery, a lifetime of marital neglect, the frailty of life, the inevitability of death, and the hilarious pomposity of ordinary men and women. They range from the light­hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed.

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Crime

Just published, the latest in Margot Kinberg’s Joel Williams series. Many of you will know Margot through her excellent blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

The Blurb says: They Said It Was a Tragedy. They Said It Was an Accident. They Lied.

Second Chance is a Philadelphia alternative school designed for at-risk students. They live on campus, they take classes, and everyone hopes they’ll stay out of prison. And then one of them dies. When Curtis Templeton falls from a piece of scaffolding near the school, it’s called a tragic accident. A damned shame. A terrible loss. And everyone moves on.

Two years later, former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams and two of his colleagues do a study of Second Chance for a research paper. When they find out about Curtis’ death, they start asking questions. And no-one wants to answer them.

The search for the truth takes Williams and his research partners behind the scenes of for-profit alternative education – and straight into the path of someone who thought everything would stay buried.

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Fiction

This has been sitting on my Kindle since March 2013, from back in the good old days when the Booker used to showcase Commonwealth talent rather than being just another small cog in the American cultural domination machine. I don’t really know why it’s taken so long to reach the top of the heap, because it sounds very much my kind of thing…

The Blurb says: Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize & Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

A powerful, taut and intense tale of a friendship overshadowed by betrayal, set against the tawdry hopes and disappointments of a post-apartheid South Africa.

When Laurence Waters arrives at his new post at a deserted rural hospital, staff physician Frank Eloff is instantly suspicious. Laurence is everything Frank is not-young, optimistic, and full of big ideas. The whole town is beset with new arrivals and the return of old faces. Frank re-establishes a liaison with a woman, one that will have unexpected consequences. A self-made dictator from apartheid days is rumoured to be active in cross-border smuggling, and a group of soldiers has moved in to track him, led by a man from Frank’s own dark past. Laurence sees only possibilities-but in a world where the past is demanding restitution from the present, his ill-starred idealism cannot last.

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Scottish Crime

Courtesy of Severn House via NetGalley. I read surprisingly little Scottish crime (too many of them portray a grim, violent, gun-totin’, gangster-ridden culture I don’t recognise) so this will be my introduction to Caro Ramsay’s work. I can only hope it’s better edited than the blurb, which I’ve copied exactly from Goodreads…

The Blurb says: When a six-week-old baby is stolen from outside a village shop, Detective Inspector Costello quickly surmises there?s more to this case than meets the eye. As she questions those involved, she uncovers evidence that this was no impulsive act as the police initially assumed, but something cold, logical, meticulously planned. Who has taken Baby Sholto ? and why?

Colin Anderson meanwhile is on the Cold Case Unit, reviewing the unsolved rape of a young mother back in 1996. Convinced this wasn?t the first ? or last – time the attacker struck, Anderson looks for a pattern. But when he does find a connection, it reaches back into his own past . . . 

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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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The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

The Totleigh Towers Horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Sir Watkyn Bassett’s country seat at Totleigh Towers is probably the last place in the world Bertie Wooster would choose to visit. In his role as magistrate, Sir Watkyn once fined Bertie five pounds for the crime of stealing a policeman’s helmet. Unfortunately Sir Watkyn has forgotten the details of the crime, and thinks Bertie is a habitual criminal whom he sent to jail. But when Bertie receives an anguished plea from his old pal Gussie Finknottle, he is horrified to learn that Madeline has broken off her engagement to the aforesaid newt-fancying Gussie. Madeline, regular readers will know, thinks Bertie loves her and is quite likely to decide to marry him unless he can find a way to patch things up between the sundered lovers. Add to this the fact that Aunt Dahlia wants him to steal a silver cow-creamer from Sir Watkyn, and it seems fate has decided that Bertie must enter the lion’s den. Fortunately Jeeves will be by his side…

This is one of the best of the Jeeves and Wooster books, filled with all the regulars and a plot that gets ever more convoluted until Jeeves manages to sort everything out for the young master in the end. Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her. Gussie is as hopeless as ever – not only has he managed to offend Madeline, but he’s lost a notebook in which he has carefully jotted down some stinging insults about his host and Roderick Spode, a man whom it’s unwise to annoy unless one likes having one’s spine tied in a knot. In the interval since we last saw him, Spode has become an aspiring dictator. His followers wear black shorts – unfortunately other dictators had already used black and brown shirts, so his choices were somewhat limited. And to top it all off, Stiffy Byng wants Bertie to steal another policeman’s helmet! Dark days, indeed!

The plots are only part of what makes Wodehouse so wonderful though – and he does have a tendency to recycle the main points, like the Gussie-Madeline break-up. It’s the humour and general silliness of it all that makes them such a joy to read, combined with the certain knowledge that everything will be all right in the end, thanks to Jeeves. And most of all, it’s the wonderful use of language…

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence.

I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. “A sensitive plant, what?”
“Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.”
“Oh, am I?”

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

She laughed – a bit louder than I could have wished in my frail state of health, but then she is always a woman who tends to bring plaster falling from the ceiling when amused.

He was, as I had already been able to perceive, a breathtaking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”
“The mood will pass, sir.”

I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by Martin Jarvis. He does a great job, giving each person a distinctive voice well suited to his or her character. His Madeline in particular had me in hoots. It occurred to me that men “doing” Wodehouse women actually works rather better than when women act them, because they’re written very much from Bertie’s perspective and he’s baffled by them on the whole. A woman acting Madeline is never as funny as Bertie’s descriptions of her. I usually look out for Jonathan Cecil’s narrations of the Jeeves books, but Jarvis was just as good once I got used to his different style.

Altogether, great fun! You either ‘get’ Wodehouse’s humour or you don’t, and for those of us who do, there’s no greater pleasure than a visit to his world. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones too…

Book 22 of 90

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

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

* * * * * * * * *

….Although she was determined not to yield to panic, and run, she ceased to pick her way between cart-ruts filled with water, but plunged recklessly into muddy patches, whose suction glugged at the soles of her shoes. She had reached the densest part of the grove, where the trees intergrew in stunting overcrowding.
….To her imagination, the place was suggestive of evil. Tattered leaves still hung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering for a gibbet. A sluggish stream was clogged with dead leaves. Derelict litter of broken boots and rusty tins cropped out of a rank growth of docks and nettles, to mark a tramp’s camping-place.
….Again Helen thought of the murders.
….“It’s coming nearer – and nearer. Nearer to us.”

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

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….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

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….The year before war broke out, Punshon’s Dictator’s Way mocked the dictator of Etruria, ‘“the Redeemer of his country”, in his characteristic country-redeeming attitude so strongly reminiscent of Ajax defying the lightning’. The book was yet another Detection Club project addressing the idea of the altruistic murder. A thrillerish narrative is interspersed with pot shots against Hitler and Stalin (‘who have done so much to bring back prosperity to our world by inducing us to spend all our money on battleships, bombs, tanks, and other pleasing and instructive toys of modern civilisation’) as well as Mussolini, Oswald Mosley [leader of the British Union of Fascists] and the City financiers who gave them backing (‘Money has no smell and money knows no loyalty either’). Mosley had ‘always been a rich man and has a rich man’s idea all through’. Punshon’s contempt for brutal dictators extended to the Foreign Office: ‘They wipe their perspiring brows and say: “…Thank God for Hitler, he may want our colonies but at least he’s fighting Bolshevism.” I don’t know if they thank God for Oswald Mosley too. Perhaps nobody could go quite that far.’

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So…are you tempted?

Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

ECR Lorac (I think)

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell

Small town secrets and lies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan has just been appointed to head up the CIB in the Southern Lakes district of New Zealand’s South Island, when the body of a woman is found in the frozen water of a river near the small town of Queenstown. The fact that the body is naked makes accidental death unlikely, so suddenly Malcolm finds himself with a murder investigation on his hands, and to make matters more complicated, he soon discovers he has a personal connection to the case. Being new to the area, Malcolm is happy when a local cop is seconded to his team – Sergeant Magda Hansen, transferred from Traffic. Their first task is to find out the identity of the dead woman…

This is a début novel, and was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2017. It’s a police procedural, well written in third person, past tense, with a strong plot and some excellent descriptive writing that brings the small town, set amid rugged landscape, to life. Both Malcolm and Magda carry some personal baggage, but neither is the tedious angst-ridden maverick of so much current crime fiction. Malcolm had previously served in the armed forces including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is still affected by events that happened there. Magda is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her ambitions for her career – ambitions which her husband doesn’t support. They are both likeable characters in this initial outing, and each have plenty of room to develop and grow further in sequels, if this is to be the first in a series.

As the plot develops, we discover that the dead woman was well known around town and had links to several of the prominent businessmen and local politicians. What’s not so clear is what was at the root of these links and why so many people seem to want to deny knowing her. Malcolm soon finds that this small community has many secrets, and it’s his job to get past the wall of silence and lies that the townspeople have thrown up. This is where Magda’s local knowledge is essential – as a police officer, she knows many of the people involved and understands the power structures within this small society.

I found this an intriguing story with an excellent setting. Queenstown is full of tourists in the summer months, but now, in the heart of winter, only the permanent residents are around, nicely limiting the potential suspects to a manageable number. Although this is his fiction début, Ell has apparently been a nature writer and photographer and this shows through in his excellent descriptions of the landscape and weather, and the isolated feeling of some of the scenes that take place in more remote parts of the territory. The underlying motive is interesting and stays within the bounds of credibility, and the police procedural aspects feel believable and convincing. As well as the two main characters, we meet the rest of the small team and again they have plenty of potential for future development.

Gordon Ell

The one weakness for me was that I found the ending a bit messy and not altogether clear. It felt a little rushed and, after all the convincing detective work throughout the book, relied a bit too much on luck in the end. There were perhaps too many extra strands, probably put in to provide some misdirection which indeed they did, but it meant all the various solutions were kind of delivered in a surge at the end, leaving me feeling a bit bewildered – all the answers are given but in a way that meant it took me a bit of time to work out which parts fitted together and which were separate from the main plot. But this was a small issue that didn’t have a big impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

So in conclusion, a strong début that introduces some characters and a setting that I’ll be more than happy to revisit in the future. It’s not yet been published in the UK or the US, but hopefully it will be at some point. I’m indebted to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for sending me her own copy – she was on the judging panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award and it was her spotlighting of the novel that first drew it to my attention. Thanks, Margot – greatly appreciated!

TBR Thursday 152…

Episode 152…

The stunning fall in the TBR continues! Down 2 since I last reported, to 219! I bet you wish your willpower was as superhuman as mine…

Here are a few more that should be coming up soon… well, soonish. After Gone with the Wind

Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. Conan Doyle is nearly as fascinating a character in his own right as his creation, Sherlock Holmes…

The Blurb says: Just before Christmas 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 82-year-old spinster, was found bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. A valuable diamond brooch was missing, and police soon fastened on a suspect – Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant who was rumoured to have a disreputable character. Slater had an alibi, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment in the notorious Peterhead Prison.

Seventeen years later, a convict called William Gordon was released from Peterhead. Concealed in a false tooth was a message, addressed to the only man Slater thought could help him – Arthur Conan Doyle. Always a champion of the downtrodden, Conan Doyle turned his formidable talents to freeing Slater, deploying a forensic mind worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Drawing from original sources including Oscar Slater’s prison letters, this is Margalit Fox’s vivid and compelling account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history.

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Science Fiction

One of the science fictions entries on my Classics Club list. I read several of the Stainless Steel Rat series back in my teens and enjoyed them, but have never revisited them. Will they have stood the test of time?

The Blurb says: Meet Slippery Jim diGriz…

…cosmic criminal, the smoothest, sneakiest, con-man in the known Universe. He can take any bank in the Galaxy, con a captain out of his ship, start a war or stop one – whichever pays most.

So when the law finally catches up with the Stainless Steel Rat, there is only one thing to do – make him a cop. And turn him loose on a villainous lady who is building herself a battleship.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Jónasson’s earlier books so am looking forward to this – the start of a new series apparently.

The Blurb says: At sixty-four, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police is about to take on her last case before she retires: A young woman, an asylum seeker from Russia, found murdered on the seaweed covered rocks of the Vatnsleysuströnd in Iceland.

When Hulda starts to ask questions it isn’t long before she realizes that no one can be trusted, and that no one is telling the whole truth. Spanning Reykjavik, the Icelandic highlands and the cold, isolated fjords, The Darkness is a thrilling new crime thriller from one of the biggest new names in Scandi noir.

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History on Audio

As my Russian Revolution challenge draws to a close, what better way to end the factual side of it than with this new book from one of my favourite historians, Arthur Herman…

The Blurb says: This is the story of two men and the two decisions that transformed world history in a single tumultuous year, 1917: Wilson’s entry into World War I and Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution.

In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson, champion of American democracy but also segregation, advocate for free trade and a new world order based on freedom and justice, thrust the United States into World War I in order to make the “world safe for democracy” – only to see his dreams for a liberal international system dissolve into chaos, bloodshed, and betrayal.

That October, Vladimir Lenin, Communist revolutionary and advocate for class war and “dictatorship of the proletariat”, would overthrow Russia’s earlier democratic revolution that had toppled the all-power czar, all in the name of liberating humanity – and instead would set up the most repressive totalitarian regime in history, the Soviet Union.

In this incisive, fast-paced history, New York Times best-selling author Arthur Herman brilliantly reveals how Lenin and Wilson rewrote the rules of modern geopolitics. Through the end of World War I, countries marched into war only to increase or protect their national interests. After World War I, countries began going to war over ideas. Together, Lenin and Wilson unleashed the disruptive ideologies that would sweep the world, from nationalism and globalism to Communism and terrorism, and that continue to shape our world today.

Our New World Disorder is the legacy left by Wilson and Lenin and their visions of the perfectibility of man. One hundred years later, we still sit on the powder keg they first set the detonator to through war and revolution.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The assassin and his prey…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents, the book primarily tells of the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

Iván is a failed writer living in Cuba under Castro. Having inadvertently crossed the regime in his youth, he has lost confidence in his ability to write anything worthwhile that will be acceptable under the strict censorship in force at the time. We meet him as his wife is dying, in the near present. He tells her of a man he once knew, the man who loved dogs, and of the strange story this man told him. His wife asks him why he never wrote the story, and the book is partly Iván’s attempt to explain his reluctance.

The story the man who loved dogs told Iván is of Ramón Mercader del Rio, a young Spaniard caught up in the Spanish Civil War, who is recruited by the Stalinist regime to assassinate Stalin’s great enemy, Trotsky. This introduces the two main strands of the novel which run side by side, with Iván’s story fading somewhat into the background. We follow Ramón through the Spanish Civil War, learning a good deal about that event as we go, and seeing the idealism which drove many of those on the Republican side to believe that the USSR was a shining beacon to the masses of the world. And we meet Trotsky just as he is exiled from the USSR, with Stalin re-writing history to portray him as a traitor to the Revolution.

Leon Trotsky (second right) and his wife Natalya Sedova (far left) are welcomed to Tampico Harbour, Mexico by Frida Kahlo and the US Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, January 1937.
Getty Images/Gamma-Keystone

This is a monumental novel, both in length and in the depth of detail it presents. I found it fascinating although I felt that huge swathes of it read more like factual history and biography than a fully fictionalised account of events. As regulars will know, I’ve spent much of the last year immersed in the history of the Russian Revolution, and I felt strongly that without all my recently gained knowledge of the politics and personalities, I would have struggled badly both to understand and to maintain my interest in this. I did struggle a bit with all the various factions in the Spanish Civil War, although in the end I was rather clearer about this muddled period of history than I had been before. Once Ramón left that arena to become a tool of the USSR, I felt I was back on more solid ground, however.

Although Padura occasionally refers to some of the atrocities that were carried out by Trotsky or in his name, the overall tone of the book is rather sympathetic to him. This jarred a little – I do see the romantic appeal of Trotsky as a great thinker and orator and a fanatical idealist, but I’m not convinced that he would have been much of an improvement over Stalin had history played out differently and put Trotsky in power. There’s a distinct suggestion that Trotsky’s actions were forgiveable because they were carried out against enemies of the Revolution, whereas Stalin’s crimes were far worse because he turned on those who had fought alongside him to bring the Revolution into being. Firstly, I wasn’t convinced by the historical accuracy of this assessment as it related to Trotsky, and secondly… well, an atrocity is an atrocity, surely, however it’s justified.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

Where the book excels, though, is in the pictures it paints of the lives of Trotsky in exile and Ramón being trained, or brainwashed, depending on how you view it, to be his assassin. The Trotsky strand feels very well grounded in truth, with a lot of references to documented events. Trotsky in the book comes over as a man still fixated on the idea of a Marxist revolution, and obsessed with proving his innocence of the charges of treason against him.

His assassin I know nothing about in real life, so can’t say if the same truthfulness applies there. But the Ramón in the book is a fascinating character. We are shown his childhood and relationship with his mother, whose early adoption of communism led her son to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War and introduced him to the Soviet agent who would recruit him. Then we see the brainwashing techniques employed by the Soviets, and Ramón’s life under different identities as a sleeper, waiting for the call to act. True or not, it’s all entirely credible and convincing.

The third story, that of Iván, felt extraneous to me – yet another excuse for a writer to write about the difficulties of being a writer, a subject which seems to be endlessly fascinating to writers but about which I personally have read more than enough. It does however cast some light on life in Cuba under its own communist regime and as such earns its place in the book, even if I sighed a little each time we ended up back in Iván’s company.

Leonardo Padura

The quality of the writing is excellent and for the most part so is the translation by Anna Kushner. There are occasional strange word choices though – sheepherders? Shepherds, surely? – and it uses American spelling and vocabulary – shined, rather than shone, etc. Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence and insight, all of which mean that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is as I mentioned earlier – without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read and one I highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Many years ago, so the story goes, a celebrated newspaper publisher sent a telegram to a noted astronomer.
….“Wire collect immediately, five hundred words on whether there is life on Mars.”
….The astronomer dutifully replied, “Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows…” two hundred fifty times. But despite this confession of ignorance asserted with dogged persistence by an expert, no-one paid any heed, and from that time to this we hear authoritative pronouncements by those who think they have deduced life on Mars and by those who think they have excluded it. Some people very much want there to be life on Mars; others very much want there to be no life on Mars. There have been excesses in both camps. These strong passions have somewhat frayed the tolerance for ambiguity that is essential to science. There seem to be many people who simply wish to be told an answer, any answer, and thereby avoid the burden of keeping two mutually exclusive possibilities in their heads at the same time.

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

….A gaunt tower showed up against the lowering sky, which was lit by the reflection of Neon lights in the West End. At the corner of the tower gargoyles stood out against the crazily luminous rain, and the long roof of the main body of the building showed black against the sky.
….It was a queer-looking building to find among the prosperous houses of that pleasant-looking road, and Grenville was aware of a feeling of apprehension, quite unreasonable, at the sight of the dark massive structure. “The Morgue” – and a sculptor who hanged himself from a beam. “Jolly!” he said to himself, but having got so far he wasn’t going to funk that dark-looking pile. He went up to the iron gate which stood between the two imposing stone pillars and shook it, and found that it swung to his hand. Pushing it open, he went in, up a stone-flagged path, and found himself faced by an arched doorway, so overgrown with ivy that it was obvious it could not have been opened for years.

* * * * * * * * *

….The storm, unleashed two days earlier, did not seem to have any intention of abating, and upon entering it, he felt how his body and his soul sank in the ice, while the air hurt the skin on his face. He took a few steps toward the street from which he could make out the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, and it was as if he had hugged the white cloud until he melted into it. He whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

* * * * * * * * *

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties. (I think we should bring these rules back for current crime fiction…)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Bump in the Night (Flaxborough Chronicles 2) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery in Middle England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chalmsbury is normally a quiet town with at least a veneer of respectability. So it’s a bit of a shock when the residents have their sleep disturbed one Tuesday night when somebody blows up the local drinking fountain. A prankster, is the general feeling, but when on the following Tuesday a statue unfortunately loses its head in another blast, people want the police to get to the bottom of it before more damage is done. The problem is the local Inspector is friends with the man the townsfolk suspect is responsible. So suddenly Inspector Purbright from the neighbouring town of Flaxborough finds himself drafted in…

Colin Watson wrote the twelve books that make up the Flaxborough Chronicles over a period stretching from 1958 to 1982, with this second in the series dating from 1960. Like many series, the books improve for the first two or three, hit a peak in the middle of the series, and then tail off a little towards the end, but even the less good ones are still way ahead of most of the competition. This one loses a little for me by having the action moved to Chalmsbury, which means that we don’t see much of the regular cast of characters who appear in the ones based in Flaxborough itself. But it has its own cast of deliciously quirky characters to make up for that lack, and has the same sly and wicked wit, poking fun at the respectable middle-classes of Middle England.

“Mr Hoole was the complainant, sir, but he didn’t exactly report it. He just stood under where the sign had been and used bad language. I advised him to be careful and he changed to much longer words that didn’t seem to give as much offence to bystanders.”

The books are peculiarly suited to the ’50s and early ’60s – a time when class structures were still fairly rigid in Britain, and people were judged as much by their professional role as by their character, but when the first breezes of the winds of change of the later ’60s were beginning to be felt. The joy of Watson is that he takes delight in letting the reader peek at the scandals hidden behind the lace curtains of the outwardly respectable. It’s quietly subversive, and must have seemed even more so at the time.

Some of the stories were turned into a TV series in 1977 under the title Murder Most English, starring Anton Rodgers as Inspector Purbright. I re-watched them two or three years ago on DVD and they’ve stood up well to the passage of time. Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing…

In this one, the action takes place mainly among the shop and business owners of the town, and Purbright soon finds that most of them are willing to gossip about their friends and neighbours. There’s a good deal to gossip about – everything from drunk driving to murky business dealings to marital infidelity goes on regularly, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The solution seems perfectly obvious from early on, so you can be sure that won’t turn out to be the real one in the end. Underneath all the humour and light social commentary, there’s an excellent plot, full of motives, alibis and clues, and it’s not long before the destruction of property escalates to a death and a murder investigation. These books are a little too late to really count as Golden Age from a strict time point of view, but they have that feel about them, only with added hanky-panky. Often Watson makes an oblique innuendo and leaves it to the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks, and I always imagine him winking cheekily as he does so…

“A somewhat impetuous man, Mr Biggadyke, by all accounts.”
“Very likely. But that was no excuse for him going round and telling everybody that story about the Colonel and Bessie Egan.”
“Ah, yes. And the spurs.”

I can never think of these books without the word skulduggery coming into my mind – everybody, except Purbright, is always up to something they shouldn’t be, but it’s mainly mild naughtiness rather than outright badness.

“So you see the person I think the police ought to be looking for is someone here in the town who’s been turned into an enemy of society – perhaps through being sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“That ought to be a lot easier,” Kebble daringly remarked, “than having to pick from all the people in Chalmsbury who haven’t been sent to prison for things they did commit.”

Colin Watson

A delight – books I revisit often and enjoy anew every time. They’ve been quite hard to get hold of for some time, so I’m happy to see that Farrago are issuing them as e-books. If you’ve never met Inspector Purbright, give yourself a treat – these books are guaranteed to chase the blues away…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 151… and The Classics Club Spin #17 Result!

…aka Whaaaaaaaaaaaaatttt??????

The Classics Club Spin has spun and the result is…

No. 3

Now hold on just one f…f…f…flippin’ minute!! Did I not say NOT GONE WITH THE WIND???  What’s going on??? What have I ever done to offend these pesky Classics Club Gods??? Eh??? EH??? I swear I shall be revenged… someday… somehow…

*stomps off, muttering curses*

* * * * *

Well, in the highly unlikely event that I’ll ever have time to read another book, here are a few of the ones I was hoping to get to… 

Factual

Courtesy of Allen Lane via Amazon Vine. I vividly remember when the Chernobyl disaster happened and we here in Scotland were told that the fallout was affecting the sheep farms in our Highlands. Of course, shocking though that was, it was nothing in comparison to the impact on the people who lived near the site…

The Blurb says: On the morning of 26 April 1986 Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. The outburst put the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In the end, less than five percent of the reactor’s fuel escaped, but that was enough to contaminate over half of Europe with radioactive fallout.

In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy recreates these events in all of their drama, telling the stories of the firefighters, scientists, engineers, workers, soldiers, and policemen who found themselves caught in a nuclear Armageddon and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible: extinguishing the nuclear inferno and putting the reactor to sleep. While it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was a turbine test gone wrong, Plokhy shows how the deeper roots of Chernobyl lay in the nature of the Soviet political system and the flaws of its nuclear industry. A little more than five years later, the Soviet Union would fall apart, destroyed from within by its unsustainable communist ideology and the dysfunctional managerial and economic systems laid bare in the wake of the disaster.

A moving, moment by moment account of the drama of heroes, perpetrators, and victims, Chernobyl is the definitive history of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

* * * * *

Science Fiction

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Having recently read and reviewed three of HG Wells’ science fiction classics in OWC editions, OWC kindly provided me with the other two in their catalogue. I don’t think I’ve read this one before, but if I have it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten it…

The Blurb says: At the village of Lympne, on the south coast of England, the ‘most uneventful place in the world’ the failed playwright Mr Bedford meets the brilliant inventor Mr Cavor, and together they invade the moon.

Dreaming respectively of scientific renown and of mineral wealth, they fashion a sphere from the gravity-defying substance Cavorite and go where no human has gone before. They expect a dead world, but instead they find lunar plants that grow in a single day, giant moon-calves and the ant-like Selenites, the super-adapted inhabitants of the Moon’s utopian society.

The First Men in the Moon is both an inspired and imaginative fantasy of space travel and alien life, and a satire of turn-of-the-century Britain and of utopian dreams of a wholly ordered and rational society.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

First up for my brand new Five by Five challenge. Robert Harris has never let me down so I’m really looking forward to this. It’s narrated by Michael Jayston, one of our excellent British actors who might not be so well known to an international audience.

The Blurb says: It is twenty years after Nazi Germany’s triumphant victory in World War II and the entire country is preparing for the grand celebration of the Führer’s seventy-fifth birthday, as well as the imminent peace-making visit from President Kennedy.

Meanwhile, Berlin Detective Xavier March — a disillusioned but talented investigation of a corpse washed up on the shore of a lake. When a dead man turns out to be a high-ranking Nazi commander, the Gestapo orders March off the case immediately. Suddenly other unrelated deaths are anything but routine.

Now obsessed by the case, March teams up with a beautiful, young American journalist and starts asking questions…dangerous questions. What they uncover is a terrifying and long-concealed conspiracy of such astounding and mind-numbing terror that is it certain to spell the end of the Third Reich — if they can live long enough to tell the world about it. 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

I have only one other thing to say…

HUH!!!

😡

* * * * *

At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Timor mortis conturbat me, part 2…

🙂 🙂 🙂

At his last meeting with renowned Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, MacCaig laid a charge on Andrew Greig to make a journey after MacCaig’s death to his beloved Assynt in the north west of Scotland, and there to fish in the Loch of the Green Corrie. This is the story of that trip, mixed with Greig’s memories of and musings on MacCaig and his own life.

I’ve said this before, but my rating system is not an indicator of quality but simply of my enjoyment or otherwise of a particular book. In terms of quality, this book deserves more and plenty of people have loved or will love it. So I’ve gone with 3 stars even though I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I often recycle the titles I use for reviews, and I knew what the title for this one would be before I was more than a few chapters in: Timor mortis conturbat me – the fear of death confounds me. I also knew I had used the title before, so checked to see when. Turns out it was when I reviewed the only other book of Greig’s that I have read, In Another Light.

Greig writes of MacCaig’s declining years, of the loss of his mountaineering friend Malcolm Duff, of his own near miss when he suffered from a cyst in his brain, of his father’s death. He tells us of his breakdown following a failed relationship, when he ended up in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. I found the whole thing deeply depressing.

Andrew Greig

Most people of my age have lost people we loved and recognise that we’re closer to death than birth, and we all deal with it differently. Greig writes it out of his system and does so very well. Many people read about it and find comfort and strength from the recognition of common experience. I know already how grief feels and that it passes or lessens in time, and find no benefit or comfort in reflecting endlessly on my own past losses or anyone else’s. Timor mortis has never confounded me particularly – I’m more of an eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die type. So Greig and I are simply not a good match. And that’s not a criticism of either of us.

I abandoned this one at 30%, and won’t be attempting to read any more of his books. But I’m still happy to recommend them to the many people who find some kind of comfort or insight in having the experience of mortality and loss reflected back to them.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(P.S. TBR Thursday has moved to Friday this week so it can include the result of The Classics Club Spin #17!)

Seduced by Mrs Robinson by Beverly Gray

So here’s to you…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Graduate was released in 1967 and won an Oscar for its director, Mike Nichols. Beverly Gray was at the same stage of her life as the young hero of the movie, Benjamin Braddock – just leaving college and part of a generation that was seeking something different to the plans their parents had made for them. This book is partly about the making of the film, partly about the influence it has had on later culture, but mostly about the impact it had on Gray herself and her peers. Because of the type of book it is, it’s of course full of spoilers for the movie, and so will be this review.

I’m maybe a decade younger than Gray and The Graduate didn’t have the same impact on me when I first saw it, on TV probably in the late 70s (and quite probably with some bits cut, I’d imagine – British TV was like that back then). I liked it well enough and loved the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, but it didn’t speak to me about my life. I thought of it as an enjoyable rom-com – a bit racy, perhaps, but by the late ’70s, frankly, what wasn’t? So I was intrigued to see if Gray would deepen my appreciation for it.

Gray starts by discussing her own reaction to the film on its release, and how those reactions have changed somewhat as she has swapped the optimism of youth for the realism (or cynicism or pessimism, depending on how you look at it) of experience. The ending in particular – seen at the time as a hopeful rejection of their parents’ values – seems more ambiguous looking back. OK, so they’d run off – now what?

She then goes back in time a little to discuss the origin of the film and its production, She introduces us to the writer of the original book, Charles Webb, and tells us about his own life on which he drew somewhat for the plot (though his affair with his parents’ friend was purely wishful thinking). The book didn’t take off at first – reviews I’ve read of it suggest it’s not terribly well written. Gray says it was compared in style to The Catcher in the Rye and clearly was in the same vein of trying to capture that generational shift that happened in America during the ’60s. Although the film came out in ’67 at the height of Vietnam, the book places it closer to ’62, which is why Benjamin is not living in fear of being drafted. Despite its relative lack of success, it attracted the attention of an aspiring movie producer, Larry Turman, who managed to get Mike Nichols interested, and also persuaded backer Joe E Levine to put up the money.

Gray then takes us through the making of the film, though more from the perspective of the people than the technical side of it. We learn how the young Dustin Hoffman got the role, how Nichols got the performances out of his stars, whose leg it actually is in the rolling up the stocking scene. (Admit it – you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Send me chocolate and I might tell you…)

Then she takes us through the film scene by scene, pointing out some of the techniques and effects Nichols used. I found this was the perfect stage to re-watch the movie. This is an interesting section, done well, getting a nice balance between detail and overall impression. It’s done from the perspective of the viewer rather than the film-makers, so she points out what has been done rather than how it was done. For example, she points out the use of mirrors, glass and reflections throughout the film, or tiny details like Ben being anti-smoking before his rebellion and then taking up smoking at round about the same time as he… ahem… takes up with Mrs Robinson. These are all the things I never notice, so I found this added a lot to my appreciation of how Nichols achieved his story-telling effects.

The final section tells us how the film impacted on the later careers of its stars, not always positively, and how it has been referenced in popular culture in the decades since its release. Some of this made my eyes glaze over a bit, partly because a lot of the references related to specifically American things, like ads, and partly because, not being an avid movie watcher, I hadn’t seen a lot of the films she mentioned. However it would work better for American cinema enthusiasts, I’m sure.

Gray writes lightly and conversationally, with a good deal of fairly waspish humour sprinkled over the pages, and the book is enjoyable to read. It doesn’t have the depth of a deeply researched production critique (like Citizen Kane, for instance), but that’s not its aim. The personal aspect of how it touched Gray and her generation adds interest, though occasionally she has a tendency to dismiss any interpretation of it that differs from her own. And of course it relates directly only to a small subset of that generation – well off, college educated, white – something Gray doesn’t really acknowledge, at least not explicitly.

I enjoyed the read and the re-watch it inspired, and I found, like Gray, that my advancing years had made that ending look a lot deeper than my young self had spotted. In fact, the final scene of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus feels much less victorious to me now. Gray explains how Nichols managed to catch the ambiguous expressions on the actors’ faces, almost by accident, and yet it gives the film a depth and poignancy it might not otherwise have had.

If like me you haven’t watched it in years, treat yourself to a movie night – it has more than stood the test of time. And if you’re a fan of the film, then I happily recommend the book.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Wolf to…

Chain links…

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

This month’s starting book is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfil society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

Hmm – since I think this sounds like utter tosh that’s selling the mythical ‘myth’ about which it’s pretending to protest, I think it’s safe to say the book’s not my kind of thing. Which reminds me of another book that’s not my kind of thing, but which I loved anyway…

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. Normally I avoid vampire books but this one turned out to be so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. And will almost certainly make it onto my best of the year list.

He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.

Some reviewers have compared it in terms of subject matter to Cormac McCarthy, which makes me think of…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. We follow two characters, known only as the man and the boy, as they journey through the devastated land. I was unsure how I felt about this at the time, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that has stayed with me – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.

The most recent dystopian novel I’ve read is…

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Written in 1920, this book gives a prescient look at the potential outcome of the Marxist-style regime that was then coming into existence in Revolutionary Russia. A totalitarian “utopia” where almost all individuality is stripped away and people become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine, and just as dispensable. It’s easy to see its influence on some of the great dystopian novels of the early and mid-twentieth century, like Orwell’s 1984.

I haven’t reviewed 1984 on the blog, but I have reviewed…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. This allegorical fable of the Russian Revolution didn’t work as well for me now as it had done when I first read it in school. But it’s still a great book for younger readers who might not be quite ready for the likes of 1984, and the story of poor Boxer the horse is still just as moving…

Talking of boxers reminded me of…

The End of the Web by George Sims, the hero of which is an ex-boxer. (Yeah, I know that link is pretty strrrrrretched, but work with me, people… 😉 ) From 1976, this starts off as a fairly conventional thriller – ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events – but suddenly veers off in a different direction half-way through, giving it a feeling of originality. Well written and giving a great sense of the London of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it

The author was apparently connected to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during WW2, which made me think of…

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

* * * * *

So Wolf to Harris, via not my kind of thing, Cormac McCarthy, dystopian novels, George Orwell, boxers and Bletchley Park!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Classics Club Spin #17

The lap of the gods…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 17th Spin, and my fourth. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before Friday, 9th March. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by April 30th, 2018. I have no idea how I’m going to fit that in, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

So here’s my list. This time I’ve selected it on a random basis of books that haven’t appeared on a spin before plus books that I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’m kinda hoping for a shortish one, so NOT Gone with the Wind. Did you hear me, Classics Club Gods? I said – NOT GONE WITH THE WIND!!!

1) The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

2) Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

3) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

4) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

5) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

6) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

7) Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

8) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

9) The Go-Between by LP Hartley

10) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

11) The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

12) Flemington by Violet Jacob

13) Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

14) Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

15) The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

16) The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

17) The 39 Steps by John Buchan

18) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

19) Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

20) Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

* * * * * * *

If I had to choose, I’d like to see For Whom the Bell Tolls come up, or Nada the Lily, or any of the Scottish books. But it’s out of my hands now…

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 150…

Episode 150…

A massive drop in the TBR this week! Down 2 to 221! And now I’m snowed in there’s no excuse for not getting plenty of reading done… except that it’s much more fun laughing at poor Tommy. The snow’s deeper than he is, as he discovered to his shock when he bounced out the back door at dawn this morning and more or less disappeared…

The problem is when he comes in he thinks I’m perfect for warming his snowy feet on. Anyway, here are a few more that are coming up soon…

Factual

The last time I read one of Martin Edwards’ books, I ended up adding 102 books to my TBR. I’m hoping this one won’t have the same effect…

The Blurb says: Winner of the 2016 EDGAR, AGATHA, MACAVITY and H.R.F.KEATING crime writing awards, this real-life detective story investigates how Agatha Christie and colleagues in a mysterious literary club transformed crime fiction.

Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Bloomsbury via NetGalley. I requested this after reading two excellent rave reviews from Anne at I’ve Read This and Naomi at Consumed by Ink. These Canadians are dangerous when they hunt in packs…

The Blurb says: Michael and Francis are the bright, ambitious sons of Trinidadian immigrants. Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of houses and towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, the brothers battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them on a daily basis.

While Francis dreams of a future in music, Michael’s dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their school, whose eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic event.

Beautifully written and extraordinarily powerful, Brother is a novel of deep humanity which provides a profound insight into love, family, opportunity and grief.

* * * * *

Weird horror

Courtesy of Pushkin Press via NetGalley. Another classic horror writer I’ve never heard of! And another who apparently influenced the ubiquitous HP Lovecraft…

The Blurb says: The four uncanny and terrifying tales contained between these covers are all linked by their reference to a certain notorious play, a cursed, forbidden play that has spread like a contagion across the world, a play in which the second act reveals truths so terrible, and so beautiful, that it drives all who read it to lunatic despair: The King in Yellow.

These stories are some of the most thrilling ever written in the field of weird fiction. Since their first publication in 1895 they have become cult classics, influencing many writers from the renowned master of cosmic horror H. P. Lovecraft to the creators of HBO’s True Detective.

* * * * *

Time-travelling crime

Courtesy of Saraband. Having just read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (review to follow), this seems irresistible, especially since it might hopefully be a lighter addition to my Russian Revolution challenge as it draws near to the end…

The Blurb says: Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name. Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins. But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The weak and the mad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. When another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him, Guy little thinks that this is the beginning of an odd relationship which will eventually spiral into murder…

First published in 1950, this is one of the early examples of what we’d now call “psychological thrillers”. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy tries to brush him off, but Bruno goes ahead with his part of the scheme. The thrust of the book is Bruno pressuring Guy to hold up his side of the bargain – a bargain Guy never agreed to, although he didn’t explicitly refuse it either. We see the psychological effect on Guy and eventually on Bruno too, as the plot plays out.

Two things combined to give me perhaps overly high expectations of this book. The first is its stellar reputation as a masterpiece of the form and as an influence on later generations of crime writers; the second is Hitchcock’s wonderful film adaptation, one of my favourite movies of all time. Having recently read quite a few of the books that Hitchcock adapted, I’ve realised that he often changed the plot almost out of all recognition, so I wasn’t surprised to find that that’s the case with this one too. While Hitch’s story is of a good man hounded by a crazy one, Highsmith’s version of Guy is of a weak and distinctly unlikeable character whose innate lack of moral strength is as much of an issue as Bruno’s possible insanity. Oddly, it reminded me far more of Hitch’s other great classic, Rope, in terms of the moral questions it poses.

Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. His unhealthy relationship with his mother in particular is portrayed with a good deal of subtlety – lots of showing rather than telling and, because we see it almost entirely through Bruno’s eyes, it’s handled with a good deal of ambiguity. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, especially as we don’t really get to know the potential second victim, Mr Bruno, Senior.

Challenge details:
Book: 95
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1950

Miriam is given more characterisation, but not much, and there’s a kind of suggestion that she brought her fate on herself by her sexual promiscuity. But she’s bumped off too quickly for the reader to develop any depth of feeling for her either way. Anne, Guy’s new love interest, is a cipher for most of the book – there merely to give Guy a motive for wishing to be rid of Miriam and, later, to give him something to lose. For the most part we see Anne solely through Guy’s eyes, as a kind of idealised opposite to Miriam, which makes her come over as rather passionless and insipid, and almost unbelievably trusting of this man that she clearly barely knows or comprehends (or she wouldn’t dream of marrying him). In the end stages, we do get to see things from her perspective briefly, but she never really comes to life as a distinct character in her own right.

Patricia Highsmith

The writing is very good, particularly when showing Guy’s increasing loss of grip on reality, but I found the pacing of the first half incredibly slow. Partly that may have been because I knew the story from the film, but the book seems to cover the same ground over and over again, with Guy angsting over his moral dilemma to the point where I didn’t care what he decided to do so long as he finally did something! However, the second half seems to flow much better and the tension ramps up, so that in the end I was glad I stuck with it.

As you’ll no doubt have realised by now, I’m not joining the legions of readers who have praised this unreservedly. For me, the unlikeability of the characters made it an intellectual rather an emotional read and, as I’ve said, the first half seemed to drag interminably. However, there’s plenty to enjoy in it, especially in the later stages when it picks up pace, and it definitely deserves its reputation as a classic for its originality at the time. So I certainly recommend it, both as a good read overall and because it’s always interesting to read a book that has been so influential on the genre.

Book 21 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: The War of the Worlds

Two versions…

Directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry (1953)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise (2005)

From the book review:

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I mentioned that, as a story, I might only have rated it as three or four stars on the grounds that it’s full of description rather than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But it earns its place as a five-star classic because of the light it sheds on aspects of Wells’ society and the British psyche of the time. Specifically, it gives a commentary on Britain’s relationship with its Empire, on the centuries-old fear of invasion, on questions of Darwinism and evolution and on the contemporary discussion of the relatively newly-discovered “canals” on Mars, suggesting advanced life there. All of these would be difficult to reproduce in a film, I felt, especially since both film versions promptly transplanted the story to America and brought it forward in time! But I hoped that maybe the films would have something else to offer…

Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in Haskin’s version

Haskin’s 1953 film is set in southern California and has a scientist, Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), as hero, and the time is the then present. To give the story the more human touch a film really needs, Forrester is provided with a love interest, Sylvia, played by Ann Robinson. Empire has gone as a theme, to be replaced by contemporary fears relating to the Cold War and the mass destruction of all-out global nuclear war, and this works reasonably well. There are references to the battle between traditional religious and evolutionary theories and the film gets a little lost in deciding whether Martians, being more advanced, are closer to their Maker, or – and it really glosses over this – are enemies of man’s God as much as man. Let’s just say that the film suggests God plays a significant role in their annihilation. I found it a little messy, but probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t been comparing to the book.

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in Spielberg’s version

Spielberg’s 2005 version is also set in its present and the location is in and around New York and Boston. Tom Cruise plays a crane operator who just happens to get caught up in events. Spielberg’s humanising involves the rather clichéd story of an absent father suddenly thrust into peril with his two children, giving them all a chance to learn to understand and respect each other better. It’s a bit saccharin, but then it is Spielberg. Spielberg’s updating of the Empire aspect is to throw in a couple of fairly blatant references to 9/11 – “Is it terrorists, Dad?”, planes falling from the sky and tall buildings being destroyed. But there’s no feeling of depth to these references and I actually felt they were in rather poor taste, to be honest. If there’s anything in the film about evolution, I missed it.

Haskin’s Martian – honestly it looks scarier in the film…

Haskin’s aliens are from Mars. It surprised me that this would still have been considered a possibility in 1953 but wikipedia tells me people were still discussing the potential existence of Martians as late as the 1960s. Spielberg gets round the problem by never saying where the aliens come from. By 2005, he’d have had no other option obviously, but it does mean all the stuff about the red weed choking the earth loses its resonance a little. (Mind you, Haskin ignores the red weed completely – special effects budget overspent maybe?) Neither alien looks much like the one in the book, but since it’s basically described as a kind of round, brown blob, I can quite see why the directors both went for something a bit more exciting!

Spielberg’s alien…

Which brings me to the one thing the films both have that the book doesn’t – special effects. I started with Haskin’s version and thought that some of the effects seem a little clunky now, but that others are still great. Apparently it won an Oscar for them and I certainly feel it was well deserved. The destruction of Los Angeles is particularly impressive and the heat ray is suitably terrifying even if it looks not unlike a big flame thrower. The war machines aren’t really like the ones in the book but they’re very good nevertheless. I was glad I’d watched it first though, because not surprisingly Spielberg’s effects are vastly superior. The destruction of New York is brilliant, and the alien machines look just as I imagined them from the book. Plus Spielberg covers the landscape with the creeping red weed which adds to the feeling of horror.

Haskin’s war machine

Both Gene Barry and Tom Cruise turn in fine performances – Barry more cerebral as a scientist, and Tom doing his action man thing, which works for me. Women and girls in both versions are there very much to scream and be saved by brawny men, I fear. But if I’m ever attacked by a Martian, frankly I’ll scream as loud as I can and hope that Tom comes running to my aid (or Gene, I suppose, if Tom’s busy – a girl can’t afford to be choosy in an emergency), so I forgive them. Both films stick fairly closely to the book in terms of the ending, which was a relief but also means they end somewhat less dramatically than films of this type usually do.

Spielberg’s war machine

All-in-all, I enjoyed both films very much for different reasons and would be hard put to recommend one over another. Spielberg for the effects (and Tom), but Haskin for greater depth. For entertainment value, both deserve…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

* * * * * * *

In the end, though, the final decision is easy.
For the ideas, the depth and the commentary on society’s contemporary concerns…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

Gratuitous and irrelevant Tom pic. Because why not?

 

Five times Five equals Five

Happy Birthday to Me!

This week marks my fifth blog birthday. Good grief! Thanks to everyone who’s joined me along the way, and a special thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me from the very first year – your company is always greatly appreciated.

I usually do a big round-up of bloggy statistics for my birthday post, but this year I’ve decided to do something a little different. So just a few stats first, covering the full five years…

2087 followers

(always makes me laugh, since only around forty or fifty people actually visit me on any kind of regular basis, but it’s still always fun to see that “followers” figure grow)

Rafa still hasn’t followed me…

1131 posts

(I’m so sorry! *faints*)

George hasn’t read any of them…

193,066 views

(at least half of them from kids looking to cheat on their homework, I suspect)

Tom hasn’t viewed a single post…

47,766 comments

(My favourite stat! Thanks for being such a chatty bunch – that’s the real reason I blog! C’mon – help me get it up to a round 50,000…)

Aragorn has never left a single comment…

400 5-star reviews

(that’s the book or story that got 5-stars, obviously, not the review…)

But Darcy always gets 5-star reviews…

Phew!

* * * * *

The access to new releases via NetGalley and publishers is one of the major perks of book blogging, of course. But I do find it has a small downside, in that I never seem to find time to follow up on authors with extensive back catalogues. I end so many reviews with “I’m looking forward to reading more of his/her books in the future”, and then I never do. So, since I’ve discovered that setting myself a little challenge concentrates my mind, that seems like a good way to celebrate my fifth anniversary.

The Five times Five Challenge

I’ve selected five authors, each of whom I’ve given at least one 5-star review and then failed to follow up on. And for each author, I’ve selected five books I’d like to read. I’m not setting myself any dates or deadlines – this is just for a bit of fun and to keep them in the forefront of my mind when I’m splurging on books to top up my TBR.

Philip Roth

Philip Roth
(Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

I’ve read Roth’s American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) before, many years ago, and recently re-read American Pastoral, giving it not just 5 stars but the title of The Great American Novel. So I’d like to re-read the other two and read a few of his others that have achieved critical acclaim.

I Married a Communist

The Human Stain

The Plot Against America

Nemesis

Sabbath’s Theatre

* * * * *

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the second book to earn the title of The Great American Novel, and shamefully I still haven’t got around to reading anything else by her. Some of these have been recommended to me – others I’ve picked more or less at random.

The Bluest Eye

Song of Solomon

Sula

A Mercy

Jazz

* * * * *

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

I had mixed feelings about The Grapes of Wrath – profound and stunningly written but I really object to the way he sets out to emotionally manipulate the reader, sometimes blurring the line between pathos and bathos. So while I want to read more, I’ve tried to include some lighter ones too.

Cannery Row

East of Eden

A Russian Journal

The Pearl

The Wayward Bus

* * * * *

William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

I’ve loved everything I’ve read of McIlvanney’s – the three books in his Laidlaw trilogy and Docherty – and really want to explore his work more thoroughly. I’ve pretty much picked these as the ones most easily available, often a sign that they’re considered the best.

The Kiln

The Big Man

A Gift from Nessus

Remedy Is None

Walking Wounded

* * * * *

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Harris seems to be pretty prolific and I’ve managed to keep up with his new releases over the last few years, but have still barely scratched his back catalogue. I actually already own two of these, so really ought to get around to reading them!

Fatherland

Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1)

Lustrum (Cicero Trilogy 2)

Dictator (Cicero Trilogy 3)

Archangel

I’ve deliberately omitted crime fiction since my existing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge is enough to be going on with, I feel. And I was also forced to omit several other authors I’d have loved to include – Daphne du Maurier, Ernest Hemingway, Hilary Mantel, H Rider Haggard, to name but a few.

So what do you think of my list? Do any of them appeal to you? Which writers would you like to find time to explore a bit more?

* * * * *

Thanks for your company in year 5 – hope you’ll stick around for year 6.
It should be full of books and chocolate!
(And maybe some more pics from my Heroes’ Gallery if you’re good…)

You never know – maybe one day Robert will visit…