TBR Thursday 97… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

total-count-sept-16

It’s the review copies that are the killer! If I could just stay away from NetGalley… and publishers… and authors! Every time I mention that I got a book for review in future, I want you all to shout BOOOOO!! very loudly. And the further from Scotland you are, the louder you must shout. Ready to give it a try? All together now…

community-booooo

Hey! Pretty good for a first attempt. Keep practising!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in July, and I’ve been concentrating since then on the 20 Books of Summer challenge, so this one has been on the back-burner a little. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve travelled to a few places, so let’s see where I’ve been…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I had a rather harrowing trip to Kabul in the company of Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner. I thought my visit to the Vatican City might be more relaxing, but Robert Harris kept my pulse rate up in Conclave. Then off to post-WW1 Calcutta just in time for a nice murder in Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. I also paid a return visit to New York, this time in the 1950s courtesy of Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch, and I’ve decided to swap it into my New York slot in place of Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One – though both are set in New York, Rindell’s book gives a better flavour of that vibrant city.

To see the full challenge, click here.

19 down, 61 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

So far, I’ve only read one from my Classics Club list, but it was a goodie. Now that you’re all going to help with my review copy addiction (BOOOOO!!) I shall have more time to concentrate on this challenge in the months ahead.

4-50-from-paddington-2

1 down, 89 to go!

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Completed Challenges and Events

The Agatha Christie Blogathon

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this event run jointly by Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner. 4.50 from Paddington doubled for this event, along with the Film of the Book, Murder, She Said.

murder-she-said-dvd

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20 Books of Summer

I finally finished reading and reviewing my 20 books, albeit nearly three weeks late in the end. But who wouldn’t want a longer summer anyway? Clicking the logo will take you to the final list…

20 books 2016

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Coming up…

So all in all it’s been a busy few months bookwise. I’ll be spending the next three months trying to clear some of these review copies (BOOOO!!), reading some GAN books, and generally clearing the decks a bit. But I will be participating in one event, again hosted by Christina Wehner, this time in partnership with Into the Writerlea

The Characters in Costume Blogfest

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To find out more about it or to sign up, click the logo!

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Here’s to a great autumn of reading! 😀

A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Creatures of the night…

🙂 🙂 😐

from the dust returned 2Usually I give a short blurb at the beginning of my reviews, but I found it exceptionally hard with this one because basically the book isn’t really about anything discernible. Lots of creatures of the night and weird people with strange powers (maybe werewolves and vampires – I really have no idea) are en route to a family homecoming at the Elliot house in Illinois. While there, we will be told a few stories about some of them which seem to be almost entirely unlinked to each other but for the repeated appearance of a few of the characters.

I’m guessing you’ve already worked out that this book didn’t exactly thrill me. Fantasy is always a big ask for me, but at least most fantasy has some kind of story. The book apparently originated as short stories written over a long period of time which Bradbury then brought together in 2001, writing linking portions to try to give it some kind of coherent structure. This is the same way as Bradbury’s much earlier (by half a century) The Martian Chronicles evolved – a book I thought was truly wonderful despite the fragmentary feel of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well with this one. Firstly, with one or two exceptions, the separate stories aren’t terribly interesting; and, secondly, there doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching theme to outweigh the weakness of the linking.

The main residents of the house are a mummy known as One Thousand Times Great-Grandmère, Cecy, a girl who can dream herself into other people, Mother and Father (nope, got nothing to say about them at all) and a mortal boy, Timothy, who was taken in by the family when he was abandoned and now dreams of one day having wings like his Uncle Einar. Later Grandpère appears too – OTTG-G’s husband. Most of the stories involve one or other of these characters plus an array of other characters who tend to make only one appearance.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

If there is a theme, I think it might be that Bradbury is regretting the passing of belief in tales of the supernatural – sometimes comparing it to the loss of childhood, sometimes suggesting a kind of connection with the growth of atheism. But I think I may be looking too hard. Perhaps we’re just supposed to enjoy it for what it is. And maybe people who like fantasy more than I do will indeed enjoy it. Some of the descriptive writing is great, though sometimes it becomes rather overblown. I enjoyed the stories that had more of a story, if that makes any sense – the one where Cecy inhabits a young woman’s body in order to experience falling in love, for instance; or the story about the ghost, fading because of people’s lack of belief in the supernatural, and the nurse who helps him on his journey to Scotland, where he hopes that superstition still thrives enough to save him. But others are really just a series of descriptions and odd little vignettes that left me searching for the elusive point.

I think it might have worked better had it just been left as a book of short stories – the attempt to link them actually highlighted the unevenness of quality and lack of depth of meaning. Nope, I’m afraid this just wasn’t my kind of thing. Ah, well!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 17
Book 17

20 Books of Summer 2016 Wrap-Up

Better Late Than Never!

20 books 2016

It’s a well-known fact that, here in Scotland, summer can be unpredictable, sometimes almost to the point of non-existence. So I don’t feel too badly about deciding to extend it into mid-September this year – the warm nights and constant rain of this pre-autumnal period being not significantly different from the weather we had in the peak summer months of July and August!

All of which is my excuse for finishing the 20 Books of Summer challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books, two weeks late. Better late than never, eh? Considering I had to contend with the French Open, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open and Brexit, I think I did well to read anything at all!

So how did it go? Well… I’ve learned that an almost constant diet of review copies becomes extremely tedious after a bit. With nothing but blurbs to go on, lots of books that sound great turn out not to be. I’m looking forward to getting back to my usual mix of some old, some new. On the upside, my desire to get back to some classics and well-loved authors has given my willpower a desperately needed boost – I haven’t requested anything from NetGalley for over three weeks! (I still have 42 outstanding review copies, admittedly…)

Here’s the summary then, in ascending order of enjoyability – click on the title to see the full review…

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😦

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – abandoned due to being plot-free and rather tedious polemics rather than fiction.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – badly written but, on the upside, it gave me an opportunity to use the word misandry.

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😐 😐

The Seeker by SG MacLean – I got lost amidst all the sects and plots in this historical novel set in the time of Oliver Cromwell.

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🙂 🙂 😐

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury – didn’t really work for me, sadly. Too unstructured and not enough substance. (Full review to follow.)

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott – a slight book about Alcott’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. Interesting as an insight into Alcott, but not much more than that.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich – a disappointingly unemotional description of grief with an almost invisible plot.

The Widow by Fiona Barton – somewhat tedious domestic thriller, with an investigation that’s full of glaring errors and omissions.

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😀 😀 😀 🙂

Different Class by Joanne Harris – loved bits of this book set in a school, but less enamoured by other bits which crossed the credibility line. Well worth reading, though.

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins – well told true crime, but the lack of doubt over the guilt of the murderer prevented it from being fully absorbing.

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😀 😀 😀 😀

Oliver Twisted by Cindy Brown – a fun cosy with an attractive lead character set on a cruise ship. Perfect for light summer reading.

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😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – moving and beautifully written account of childhood in Kabul outweighs the weakness of the latter, adult, part of the story. (Full review to follow.)

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – an excellent look at the hipster scene of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, with a good plot and great characterisation.

Zero K by Don DeLillo – takes a cliché of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into an examination of death and identity, leaving plenty of room for the reader’s own interpretation.

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😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo – about the making of the movie. Loved the book far more than the film – one for my fellow geeks!

Enigma by Robert Harris – excellent writing, brilliant scene-setting, strong plot about the WW2 codebreakers in Bletchley Park. A great book!

The Girls by Emma Cline – a super début about what attracts people to cults and makes them cross moral boundaries.

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne – another geek-fest, this time about the development of the Air Raid offense in American football. Oddly, I loved this! (Full review to follow.)

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee – great writing and great research bring 1919 colonial Calcutta to life in this crime novel. Another first-rate début. (Full review to follow.)

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan – a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore – a brilliant cold war thriller, seen from the perspective of the wife and family of the man caught up in a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

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D’you know, I’m glad I did this summary. I thought it hadn’t been a great summer of reading till I reminded myself of some of the fab books I’ve loved. Eleven 4, 4½ or 5 star reads – not bad at all! And my Book of the Summer is… (ooh, this is a nearly impossible choice)…

enigma 2
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Hope you got some great reading done too! What was the Book of Your Summer?

Different Class by Joanne Harris

Crisis measures…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

different classSt Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys has been put under crisis measures after a scandal hit the school the previous year (in Gentleman & Players, apparently – a book I haven’t read). It’s 2005 and Classics master Roy Straitley is horrified at the changes being forced on this ancient and old-fashioned establishment, not least the introduction of girls into the Sixth Form. But things get worse when he meets the new headmaster and discovers him to be Harrington, an ex-pupil who was involved in events, as yet unspecified, that rocked the school back in 1981. Straitley neither likes nor trusts Harrington, and is convinced Harrington is trying to force him into retirement. But St Oswald’s has been Straitley’s life and he’s determined to stay and fight for the school’s traditions.

Most of the book is narrated by Straitley (first person, past tense) and his voice is excellent. There’s a lot of barbed humour in it as he mocks the political correctness and health-and-safety-ism that has infested all of our public services, but perhaps education worst of all. He shows quite clearly how hard it is for teachers to develop any kind of rapport with pupils without being at risk of being accused of inappropriateness or worse. And he shows that pupils are well aware of this and can use it as a weapon, subtly shifting the power balance in the classroom. Through Straitley’s eyes, we see the more ridiculous aspects of the new culture of managerialism that is imposed on “failing” schools – target-driven, goals-orientated and all the other hideous jargon that comes with that. I loved Straitley’s voice – his views are exaggerated, but just enough to make the thing deliciously humorous while still making some valid observations.

The other strand comes in the form of a diary written by an unnamed pupil, partly back in 1981 and partly in the present day (2005). This tells of three new boys who all started at St Oswald’s at the same time and therefore became rather unlikely friends. Each of these boys has a secret of some kind. The diarist gives them all nicknames, so that we’re not entirely sure who they are in the present day, but we know that one of them must be Harrington. This section is not nearly so successful. The boy’s voice didn’t convince me as that of a 14-year-old, nor did it change for the sections when he was writing as an adult. This, combined with the nicknames, meant I found myself frequently confused – not in that way when a skilled author leads one delightfully up various alleyways and dead-ends, but simply confused as to who was who and what time period we were in, finding I was frequently referring back to the chapter headings for clarification.

The plot follows the currently popular pattern of events in the past coming back to haunt the present, and there are elements of bullying and abuse in both sections. To be honest, I feel Harris handles this rather clumsily, seeming to ask the reader to take a somewhat lenient view of things that this reader doesn’t feel very lenient about – grooming, sexual abuse of children by teachers etc. Somehow I felt that Harris had got so involved in her mockery of current social trendiness that she took it a little far, towards subjects where the humour began to feel rather tasteless.

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

While I continued to enjoy Straitley’s voice all the way through, the book dragged quite a bit in the middle with nothing much happening to move things forward. And when the plot finally played out, it crossed the credibility line so often it began to feel too farcical to be taken seriously, and yet not quite humorous enough to be a black comedy.

Overall, I’m struggling to rate it. I did enjoy Harris’ writing and Straitley as a character, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing up to about half way. But I felt it became messy in the end, and my own political correctness got in the way of being happy at a resolution that I felt was morally murky at best. I felt that Harris wanted me to sympathise with characters whom I found increasingly unsympathetic. So in the end it gets 3½ stars from me – well worth reading, but didn’t quite live up to my early hopes for it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 16
Book 16

The Seeker by SG MacLean

They seek him here…

🙂 🙂

the seekerOliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts...
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts…

I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

SG (aka Shona) MacLean
SG (aka Shona) MacLean

Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!

So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.

Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 14
Book 14

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

jane steele 2Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.

I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.

But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.

Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order...
Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…

A couple of examples…

On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.

“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).

However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 13
Book 13

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

An unemotional study of grieving…

🙂 🙂 😐

laroseAs he does every year, Landreaux is hunting deer on his land. In the evening light, he raises his gun, fires and misses the deer. But in a tragic accident, his bullet hits Dusty, the young son of his neighbour, who is sitting in a nearby tree, killing him. In an agony of remorse, Landreaux and his wife participate in a Native American ceremony, which leads them to decide that the only way to make restitution is to give their own young son, LaRose, to the grieving family. At first, Dusty’s mother Nola agrees to this arrangement only out of bitterness, to cause Landreaux and Emmeline to feel some of the grief and loss she herself is going through, but soon Nola comes to dote on LaRose, clinging to him as she struggles to get over the death of her son. LaRose is a name that has been passed down the generations, and as well as the present day story, the reader is taken back in time to learn of the earlier LaRoses and, through them, of some of the history of the Native American culture over the last few centuries.

Sounds great, and this was one of my most anticipated books of the summer, having heard so many good things about Louise Erdrich’s writing. Unfortunately, I found the writing of this one cold, lacking any emotional depth despite the subject matter, an exercise in telling rather than showing. There is an attempt to build a level of suspense by leaving it a little unclear as to how culpable Landreaux was for the death of Dusty. Was it simply an unfortunate accident, or had Landreaux, a recovering alcoholic, perhaps been high on medication he had stolen from some of the elderly clients he cared for? But I’m afraid this isn’t enough to lift the basic story. In reality, it’s simply a lengthy, monotone account of the grief process of all the people involved in the event – parents, siblings and the wider community.

The story of the original LaRose is more interesting, casting some light on the culture clash in the early days of European settlement of America. There is a good deal of Native American mysticism in these passages, which somehow works fine in the context of the earlier time period, but feels totally out of place when it’s carried forward into the modern day. I do realise that my own rational prejudices are getting in the way, but being asked to accept that the current LaRose has some kind of supernatural gift, inherited from his ancestors, of leaving his body to commune with the dead was too much for me to swallow, I fear.

Putting that aside, the insights into Native American culture past and present are the most interesting parts of the book. Erdrich doesn’t romanticise it – she gives us a picture of relative poverty, not just in economic terms but in aspiration; a society where alcoholism and drug-taking are a kind of escape. She shows how some customs have survived but others have been forgotten, or revived after a period of suppression. She touches on intermarriage and how that has affected the culture; on the boarding schools where Native American children were sent to be assimilated into the European American culture; on how differently Native Americans have been treated through the generations in terms of rights – education, healthcare, etc. She avoids polemics, thankfully, and draws no conclusions – she simply paints the picture and leaves the reader to consider it.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

In the present day, however, which is the bulk of the book, we merely flick from person to person, seeing snapshots of their grief at different stages. The sections about the children are more interesting, too young at the time of the incident to feel Dusty’s loss in quite the same way as the adults, and coping more with the impact of it on their parents than on themselves. But the sections about the parents felt oddly bland, never inspiring in me any kind of real emotional reaction to what they were going through. There’s no real momentum, nothing we’re aiming towards except perhaps an end to grief and, in the end, it’s all tied up very neatly – too neatly. I often complain about books sagging in the middle – just for a change, I’m complaining that, though the middle third of this one was quite interesting, both the beginning and end sagged, and never inspired me to care about the characters. In truth, while it’s technically well written, my major response to it was a feeling of boredom and a desire to reach the end. And, when I did, I wasn’t convinced the journey had been worthwhile.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 10
Book 10

TBR Thursday 93…

Episode 93…

A massive drop in the TBR this week – down 1 to 176! This is clearly the start of a downward trend and I expect to be down to single figures quite soon. Unless something goes wrong with my willpower, but that’s highly unlikely, don’t you think?

Here are a few that will be moving onto the Reading section of my spreadsheet soon…

Factual

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that there’s a malicious booksprite picking on me. Or perhaps I’m being punished for something I did in a past life – wrote a scathing review of Chaucer or something. It seemed like a safe idea, when creating the annual FictionFan Awards, to make the prize be a promise that I’d read the author’s next book. I mean, authors always stick to similar subjects, don’t they? So when SC Gwynne won the 2014 prize with Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I settled down to wait patiently for another fascinating slice of American history to come along. So imagine my… delight… when his next book turns out to be all about a particular pass in American football. All I know (or want to) about American football is that you don’t play it with your feet…

the perfect passCourtesy of NetGalley and another of my 20 Books. If SC Gwynne can make me enjoy this, forget the Booker – the man deserves the Nobel Peace Prize!

The Blurb says: Hal Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense strategy that would revolutionize the game. That transformation began at a tiny college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach his assistant. It was there that Mumme invented the purest and most extreme passing game in the 145-year history of football, where his quarterback once completed 61 of 86 passes (both national records). His teams played blazingly fast—faster than any team ever had before. They rarely punted on a fourth down (eh?), and routinely beat teams with ten or twenty times Iowa Wesleyan’s students. Mumme did it all with average athletes and without even a playbook.

In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s genius and the stunning performance of his teams, as well as his leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated sport. He also shares the history of a moment in American football when the game changed fundamentally and transformed itself into what tens of millions of Americans now watch on television every weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan (or… me?), this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity, innovation, and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way into the mainstream of sports culture that we celebrate today.

tom-brady-replacement

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Fiction

dirt roadJames Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker prize winner, though not for this novel, of course. To my shame, I haven’t read any of his books (mainly because I think there’s a very good chance I’ll hate them due to his reputation for extreme sweariness). Time to find out… Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: From the Booker Prizewinning James Kelman, comes a road trip through the American South. Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music, wishes for a life beyond the constraints of his Scottish island home and dreams of becoming his own man. Tom, battered by loss, stumbles backwards towards the future, terrified of losing his dignity, his control, his son and the last of his family life. Both are in search of something new as they set out on an expedition into the American South. On the road we discover whether the hopes of youth can conquer the fears of age. Dirt Road is a major novel exploring the brevity of life, the agonising demands of love and the lure of the open road.

It is also a beautiful book about the power of music and all that it can offer. From the understated serenity of Kelman’s prose emerges a devastating emotional power.

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Sci-fi

from the dust returned 2The last of my 20 Books and it’ll be a miracle if I make it in time. I was blown away by Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Time to find out if that book was a one-off or if he can do it again…

The Blurb says: High on a hill by a forked tree, the House beckons its family homeward, and they come–travelers from the lyrical, lush imagination of Ray Bradbury.

From the Dust Returned chronicles a community of eternal beings: a mummified matriarch who speaks in dust; a sleeping daughter who lives through the eyes and ears of the creatures she visits in her dreams; an uncle with wings like sea-green sails. And there is also the mortal child Timothy, the foundling son who yearns to be like those he loves: to fly, to sleep in daytime, and to live forever. Instead, his task is to witness the family’s struggle with the startling possibility of its own end.

Bradbury is deservedly recognized as a master of lyricism and delicate mood. In this novel he weaves together individuals’ stories and the overarching family crisis into a softly whispered, seductive tale of longing and loss, death and life in the shadowy places.

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Crime

4.50 from paddingtonFor the Agatha Christie Blogathon in September, a re-read of one of Agatha Christie’s finest books. It’s not too late to join in – if you’d like to participate, click on the logo on my sidebar to the right…

The Blurb says: Agatha Christie’s audacious mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover* designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. (*New in the 1970s, that is, when I collected every one of the Fontana editions of Christie books with the fabulous cover designs by Tom Adams. They may be yellow, tatty and dog-eared from too many re-reads now, but there will always be a place for them on my bookshelves…)

For an instant the two trains ran together, side by side. In that frozen moment, Elspeth witnessed a murder. Helplessly, she stared out of her carriage window as a man remorselessly tightened his grip around a woman’s throat. The body crumpled. Then the other train drew away.

But who, apart from Miss Marple, would take her story seriously? After all, there were no suspects, no other witnesses… and no corpse.

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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?

Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

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

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Book 9
Book 9

Oliver Twisted (Ivy Meadows 3) by Cindy Brown

Please, sir, I want some more…

😀 😀 😀 😀

oliver twistedIvy Meadows is an actress part of the time and a private detective the rest of it. So when her PI boss, her Uncle Bob, is hired to investigate a series of thefts aboard a cruise ship, Ivy puts both her talents to use – detecting when she’s not playing Nancy in the Dickens-themed cruise’s production of Oliver! At Sea! But things take a serious turn almost as soon as she steps on board, when she finds the body of the girl she was due to share a cabin with stuffed into the wardrobe. It’s not clear how she died, but Ivy and Bob suspect murder and that in some way her death may be tied in to the thefts.

This is a fun romp, with a very likeable lead character in the shape of Ivy. Her career as a detective is just beginning, so she’s not what you’d think of as slick at it. Her technique is mainly to blurt out questions at people and hope they don’t wonder why she’s asking! But she’s intelligent and perceptive, curious about people in general, and endearingly aware of her own deficiencies. Fortunately she’s also attractive, both physically and personality-wise, so she soon builds up some on-board friendships that help her with her enquiries, while adding to the general fun.

The Dickens theme is done well, without taking itself too seriously. The cruise ship sounds frighteningly realistic with Boz’s Buffet, the Drood Deck, and fancy-dress parties where everyone dresses up as Dickens characters. The actors double as ‘ambient’ characters when they’re not on stage, so that Oliver wanders around picking the pockets of guests, while Madame Defarge knits scarves and an Eastern European Bill Sykes is mean to our Nancy (when he’s not flirting with her).

I must admit that, as has become one of my regular whines, I felt the book was a bit too long for its content, especially in the first half. It seemed to take forever for the investigation element to get underway, and I had to suspend an awful lot of disbelief that no formal investigation of the death seemed to be taking place. But when a second death happens about halfway through, things hot up, and the plot is actually rather darker than it seems as if it’s going to be. However, the general feeling is one of a well-written cosy.

Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown

There’s lots of humour in the book, and I appreciated this more as the book progressed and I found Ivy had won me over. If murder and theft aren’t enough, she also has to contend with the fact that her Uncle Bob seems to have fallen for a woman whom Ivy suspects of being a fortune hunter or worse. Oh, and then there’s the little matter that no-one thought to warn her of when she took the job as Nancy – that part of her task would be to perform aerial acrobatics 40 feet above the stage! The production of Oliver! At Sea! is largely ‘borrowed’ from the musical Oliver, with some strategic changes – songs such as Gruel, Glorious Gruel have an eerie familiarity! There’s also a touch of romance, but this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the book.

A very enjoyable cosy, better written than many in that genre, with a decent plot and some great characters. I can only echo Oliver himself… “Please, sir, I want some more!” It’s apparently the third in the series, each of which has a theatre theme, and I’ll be adding the other two to my list for those days when only something light-hearted and fun will do.

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

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Book 7
Book 8

GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

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Book 3
Book 3

TBR Thursday 90… and Half Year Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Total count June 16
Hmm… not doing too well on the target of taking fewer books for review, am I? However, regarding the overall total, in my defence I had to add roughly twenty books or so to the wishlist when I created my Classics Club list, so if it hadn’t been for that there would have been a significant decrease – and the Classics challenge runs over five years. All in all, the increase is not as devastating as I anticipated…

denial

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was at the end of April, so let’s see where I’ve been since then.

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I witnessed a murder in Milan first of all in The Murdered Banker. Javier Marias took me to Madrid in A Heart So White – also to Havana in Cuba, but I’m only claiming one destination per book. Arthur C Clarke took me not just around the world but all the way to Saturn in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (What? Cheating? Not at all – if the political situation doesn’t improve soon, I assure you I’ll be on the next space ship out of here…) My next and most recent trip was one of the Main Journey destinations – off on the Orient Express with Graham Greene in Travels With My Aunt.

To see the full challenge, click here.

16 down, 64 to go!

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The Agatha Christie Blogathon

I’ll be taking part in this event in September and I’m hoping some of you might join in too. It’s being run jointly by Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner, both of whom blog mostly about movies. However, the idea of this blogathon is to encourage book and movie bloggers to get together by reviewing either books or film and TV adaptations, or by discussing some aspect of the Queen of Crime’s work. Pop on over to Christina’s blog to find out more – it will be a lot of fun!

AgathaChristie

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20 Books of Summer

Oh dear! I’m so far behind with this challenge it may be impossible to catch up! But I’ll try! And my choices aren’t working out too well – I’ve abandoned three to date, as many as in the whole of the rest of the year. Here’s my ‘progress’ so far…

Read and reviewed

Exposure by Helen Dunmore
The Widow by Fiona Barton

Abandoned – review to follow

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (polemic barely disguised as fiction)

Abandoned and replaced – no review

Vigil by Angela Slatter (nothing wrong with it from the little I read – just not my kind of thing)

replaced by The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (polemic barely disguised as fiction)

replaced by From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Currently reading

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

So, 17 books to read and review over the next two months – still do-able… so long as I don’t get distracted…

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And finally, a couple of books that are heading towards the top of the pile…

truly madly guiltyCourtesy of NetGalley. Loved Moriarty’s last book Little Lies and can’t wait to read this one!

The Blurb says: Despite their differences, Erika and Clementine have been best friends since they were children. So when Erika needs help, Clementine should be the obvious person to turn to. Or so you’d think. For Clementine, as a mother of a two desperately trying to practise for the audition of a lifetime, the last thing she needs is Erika asking for something, again. But the barbecue should be the perfect way to forget their problems for a while. Especially when their hosts, Vid and Tiffany, are only too happy to distract them.

Which is how it all spirals out of control…

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the girlsNetGalley again. One of the big releases this summer, and also one of my 20 Books.

The Blurb says: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

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

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P.S. Next Tuesday, I will be hosting my first ever guest post, and I have to tell you it’s a major goodie! Not telling who, but here’s a hint… it’ll be a Tuesday ‘Tec post. I do hope you’ll pop in…

poirot gif 2

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Stand by your man…

😀 😀 🙂

the widow bartonWhen Glen Taylor becomes a suspect in a case of child abduction, his wife Jean stands by him, providing an alibi and declaring his innocence to the world. The police are still trying to get enough evidence to convict him when Glen is killed in an accident. Will Jean now reveal the truth? That’s what both journalist Kate Waters and investigating officer DI Bob Sparkes hope, and each has their own way of trying to persuade her.

The book starts off excellently as Jean is barricaded in her home by a howling press pack trying to get her side of the story. This first section is told in first person present tense from Jean’s perspective, and we quickly see that she’s a complicated woman – perhaps not as loyal to Glen on the inside as she seems to the world. In fact, her major emotion at Glen’s death appears to be relief. She gradually reveals their past together – her initial romantic love for this attractive man whom she almost feels is too good for her, then her gradual disillusionment over the many years of their marriage as he retreats to his own world, spending hours alone on his computer. She shows us Glen’s control over her, his ability to manipulate her, so that over time she finds herself distanced from friends and family, with the two of them living an isolated life.

The second perspective is Kate’s, the journalist, and the afterword tells us that this is Barton’s own background. Kate likes to think that she’s performing a public duty trying to get victims to tell their stories, but in her more clear-sighted moments or when she lets her guard down, she reveals her burning desire to beat the opposition, to get the story at whatever cost to the people involved. We also see Jean’s view of Kate, a much colder one, and it’s interesting to contrast the two perspectives. All of this is done skilfully, and frankly the relationship and sparring between these two would have made an excellent novel with plenty of psychological tension.

Unfortunately the book then descends into tedious domestic thriller territory, building up to a twist that I defy anyone not to spot coming before they get past the first third of the book. The police investigation is so bad it’s a joke, but with the added problem that it isn’t written that way – we are in fact supposed to take it seriously and admire the dogged but incompetent DI Sparkes, who provides the third perspective, and is the only man in the world who doesn’t spot many of the glaring errors and omissions in the investigation. The psychological astuteness with which the book begins is thrown out half-way through in order to allow for a long, long, long build-up to an undramatic climax.

Also, in the middle, Barton gets lost in her timeline and tenses, talking about Glen in the past tense at times when he is still alive, but going back to present tense after he’s dead, etc. If it hadn’t been for the dates given at the chapter headings I’d have been completely lost at points as to whether we were in the past or present. Sadly, Jean’s character starts shifting too – sometimes more intelligent and better educated than others, as if she is being written differently depending on the requirements of plot developments.

Fiona Barton Photo by Jenny Lewis
Fiona Barton
Photo by Jenny Lewis

Sometimes one’s reaction to a book is as much to do with what else one has been reading, and this book suffered because I was reading it at the same time as Helen Dunmore’s wonderful Exposure. There were enough similarities in the story – wives standing by husbands accused of crimes, and shifting timelines – for comparisons to become unavoidable, and I fear they really highlighted the weaknesses in both plotting and storytelling in this one (and conversely made me appreciate Dunmore’s skill even more). As the story became less and less credible, I regretted that Barton hadn’t had the courage to realise her book would have been stronger had it been rather more restrained and avoided the clichéd thriller aspects.

However, Barton is clearly a talented writer and this was her début, as far as I’m aware. Hopefully its success will give her the space to steer clear of the domestic thriller bandwagon in her next outing and give us something with more of the depth this book promised in its early chapters. Despite my criticisms of this one, I look forward to seeing how she develops in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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Book 2Book 2

TBR Thursday 89…

Episode 89…

OK, it’s finally happened – the TBR has leapt over the 170 mark to an appalling 171! The only things I can say in my defence are tennis and politicians – the energy spent watching one and casting voodoo spells in the direction of the others has left little time to spare for reading.

Anyway…here are some of the ones that are crawling towards to the top of the heap…

Factual

EurekaCourtesy of the author. From John Grant, who also blogs about noir films as realthog over on Noirish, this book is about the lives of famous scientists and their contribution to science. Aimed at young adults, I reckon it should just about suit my level of scientific knowledge, though unfortunately not my age…

The Blurb says: Galileo, Einstein, Curie, Darwin, Hawking — we know the names, but how much do we really know about these people? Galileo gained notoriety from his battle with the Vatican over the question of heliocentrism, but did you know that he was also an accomplished lute player? And Darwin of course discovered the principle by which new species are formed, but his bold curiosity extended to the dinner table as well. (And how many people can say they’ve eaten an owl!) In Eureka! John Grant offers fifty vivid portraits of groundbreaking scientists, focusing not just on the ideas and breakthroughs that made them so important but also on their lives and their various… quirks.

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Fiction

laroseCourtesy of NetGalley. This is one of the books I’m most looking forward to as part of #20booksofsummer …

The Blurb says: North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

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Crime

sergeant cluff stands firmFrom the British Library via MidasPR, this book and another in the series are being re-published over the next couple of months to celebrate the centenary of the author Gil North. Championed by Martin Edwards, editor of all the great classic crime anthologies the BL has produced recently, as well as being a pretty nifty crime writer himself, who has written an introduction for it.

The Blurb says: ‘He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden.’ Amy Snowden, in middle age, has long since settled into a lonely life in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw, until – to her neighbours’ surprise – she suddenly marries a much younger man. Months later, Amy is found dead – apparently by her own hand – and her husband, Wright, has disappeared. Sergeant Caleb Cluff – silent, watchful, a man at home in the bleak moorland landscape of Gunnarshaw – must find the truth about the couple’s unlikely marriage, and solve the riddle of Amy’s death. This novel, originally published in 1960, is the first in the series of Sergeant Cluff detective stories that were televised in the 1960s but have long been neglected. This new edition is published in the centenary year of the author’s birth.

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Crime

oliver twistedCourtesy of NetGalley. Bill over at Bill’s Book Reviews headed me towards this series with his tempting reviews of the first couple. I intended to start at Book 1, but then Book 3 came out… I just don’t seem to have a handle on this reading in order thing! Another of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Blurb says: When Ivy Meadows lands a gig with the book-themed cruise line Get Lit!, she thinks she’s died and gone to Broadway. Not only has she snagged a starring role in a musical production of Oliver Twist, she’s making bank helping her PI uncle investigate a string of onboard thefts, all while sailing to Hawaii on the S.S. David Copperfield.

But Ivy is cruising for disaster. Her acting contract somehow skipped the part about aerial dancing forty feet above the stage, her uncle Bob is seriously sidetracked by a suspicious blonde, and—oh yeah—there’s a corpse in her closet. Forget catching crooks. Ivy’s going to have a Dickens of a time just surviving.

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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?

 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Cold War espionage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

exposureWhen fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.

The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.

Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.

The real Cambridge spy ring…

Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.

Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.

The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.

And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 books 2016

This is Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer.

TBR Thursday 87…

Episode 87…

Oh dear! The TBR dropped over the weekend and I was so thrilled. But then it all went horribly wrong again. End result – no change! Stuck on 169. Still, at least it didn’t go up, eh? And I’m sure it’s going to start going down any time now…

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

hospital sketchesI downloaded this to my Kindle in June 2011, so I’m thinking it might be time I should actually read it…

The Blurb says: Writing under a pseudonym, Alcott recounted the vicissitudes of her two-day journey from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C. A fiery baptism in the practice of nursing awaited her at Washington Hospital, were she arrived immediately after the slaughter of the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Fredericksburg. Alcott’s rapidly paced prose graphically depicts the facts of hospital life, deftly balancing pathos with gentle humor. A vivid and truthful portrait of an often overlooked aspect of the Civil War, this book remains among the most illuminating reports of the era’s medical practices as well as a moving testimonial to the war’s human cost.

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Fiction

zero kCourtesy of NetGalley. This will be my introduction to Don DeLillo. I’m a little apprehensive since early reviews have been… well, let’s just say mixed…

The Blurb says: Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

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Fantasy Crime

vigilNetGalley again. I fell in love with Angela Slatter’s writing when I came across her in the anthology Fearie Stories. I then went on to read her own excellent collection Sourdough and Other Stories. And she also wrote one of my favourite stories from the anthology Horrorology. This is her first full length novel – waaaaaay outside my comfort zone, but she’s so good… fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane. And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

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Crime

blackoutCourtesy of the publisher, Orenda Books. The third book to be translated in my new favourite series, though who knows where it fits chronologically since the books are being translated out of order. The dream team of Ragnar Jónasson writing, Quentin Bates translating and Ari Thór Arason detecting… a summer highlight!

The Blurb says: On the shores of a tranquil fjord in Northern Iceland, a man is brutally beaten to death on a bright summer’s night. As the 24-hour light of the arctic summer is transformed into darkness by an ash cloud from a recent volcanic eruption, a young reporter leaves Reykajvik to investigate on her own, unaware that an innocent person’s life hangs in the balance. Ari Thór Arason and his colleagues on the tiny police force in Siglufjörður struggle with an increasingly perplexing case, while their own serious personal problems push them to the limit. What secrets does the dead man harbour, and what is the young reporter hiding? As silent, unspoken horrors from the past threaten them all, and the darkness deepens, it’s a race against time to find the killer before someone else dies…

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. The first three are all from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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

 

TBR Thursday 86…and results of the #20booksofsummer poll!

Episode 86…

The TBR is at a frightful 169 – up 4!! However, during my little break it briefly went over the 170 mark, so really it’s going down. (Did you find that as convincing as I did?) But once I’ve powered my way through the 20 Books of Summer, everything will be back under control…

Which brings me neatly to the results of the poll to decide which books should fill the three remaining slots on my 20 Books list. Wow! It was exciting watching the books move! It took a day or two for four leaders to emerge from the pack, but then they raced ahead of the rest and jostled for position. A couple of the trailing pack picked up speed in the final furlong and finally two of the runners shared fourth place. And then there were a couple of also-rans…

Poor Ken Livingstone (You Can’t Say That)! Thrown out of his job by Margaret Thatcher, voted out of his role as Mayor of London, chucked out of the Labour Party, but I don’t think he’s ever suffered quite such a humiliating defeat before – one measly vote! Don’t tell him!

Then poor H Rider Haggard (Nada the Lily) only got two votes! I shall need to convince you all of his worth in the months to come. Mary Queen of Scots (The Queen’s Caprice) was chased by The Invisible Ones right to the door of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – surreal!

Uncle Tom and Ray Bradbury (From the Dust Returned) ended up sharing fourth spot, and since my first book of summer, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, quickly got thrown into the abandoned tub for being boring, then one of these will be the new number twenty. I have exercised my casting vote…

So now, in reverse order…

The Winners!

4. From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

3. Enigma by Robert Harris

2. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Great choices, People! Thank you all so much for voting, commenting, tweeting – these will be my most looked-forward-to books of the summer. 😀

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And, since I’m still bogged down after my marathon read of books for Bloody Scotland, not to mention still being in the middle of the massive Douglas MacArthur, just a couple that will be reaching the top of the pile soon…

Factual

citizen kaneSince I’ve never felt I appreciate Citizen Kane as much as I should, I thought perhaps learning more about it might help. Courtesy of NetGalley.

The Blurb says: With the approach of the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane in May 2016, Harlan Lebo has written the full story of Orson Welles’ masterpiece film. The book will explore:

–Welles’ meteoric rise to stardom in New York and the real reason behind his arrival in Hollywood
–Welles’ unprecedented contract with RKO Studios for total creative control and the deeper issues that impeded his work instead
–The dispute over who wrote the script
–The mystery of the “lost” final script, which the author has in his possession, and the missing scenes, which answer questions relating to the creation of the film
–The plot by Hearst to destroy Welles’ project through blackmail, media manipulation, and other tactics
–A detailed look behind the scenes of a production process that was cloaked in secrecy
–The surprising emergence of Citizen Kane as an enduring masterpiece

Using previously unpublished material from studio files and the Hearst organization, exclusive interviews with the last surviving members of the cast and crew, and what may be the only surviving copy of the “lost” final script of the film, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey recounts the making of one of the most famous films in Hollywood history.

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Fiction

three martini lunchHaving very recently read and enjoyed The Other Typist (review still to come), I spotted that Suzanne Rindell’s new book has just been released and managed to snaffle a copy. Courtesy of the publisher, Allison & Busby.

The Blurb says: In 1958, Greenwich Village buzzes with beatniks, jazz clubs, and new ideas—the ideal spot for three ambitious young people to meet. Cliff Nelson, the son of a successful book editor, is convinced he’s the next Kerouac, if only his father would notice. Eden Katz dreams of being an editor but is shocked when she encounters roadblocks to that ambition. And Miles Tillman, a talented black writer from Harlem, seeks to learn the truth about his father’s past, finding love in the process. Though different from one another, all three share a common goal: to succeed in the competitive and uncompromising world of book publishing. As they reach for what they want, they come to understand what they must sacrifice, conceal, and betray to achieve their goals, learning they must live with the consequences of their choices. In Three-Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell has written both a page-turning morality tale and a captivating look at a stylish, demanding era—and a world steeped in tradition that’s poised for great upheaval.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. (BTW, whatever happened to short blurbs??)

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

 

20 Books of Summer 2016!

Alphabetti bookhetti…

 

20 books 2016

Again this summer, Cathy over at 746 Books has set us a challenge to read 20 books between 1st June and 4th September. (Or 15, or 10, if you prefer.) #20booksofsummer will be the hashtag for twitterers.

Last year, I failed at the last hurdle, achieving only 19 of the books I’d listed, even though I probably read in the region of 30 books during the period. By adding in loads of books I hadn’t been planning on, I also managed to mess up my reviewing schedule so badly that I still haven’t properly recovered! So this year I’m being more sensible by selecting most of the twenty from books I’m already scheduled to read over the summer – lots and lots and LOTS of NetGalley books, most of which are seriously overdue.

Inspired by the fact that one of my list starts with ‘Z’, I decided to see if I could make a full alphabet. So here it is – my summer alphabet of books. The blue ones are already scheduled – there’s 17 of them. The orange ones are all on my TBR somewhere, but haven’t made it to the top of the heap yet. I need your help to decide which three of these should make up my twenty…

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Different Class by Joanne Harris

Enigma by Robert Harris

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

The Girls by Emma Cline

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

The Magnificent Spilsbury by Jane Robins

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

Oliver Twisted by Cindy Brown

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

The Queen’s Caprice by Marjorie Bowen

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The Seeker by SG MacLean

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Vigil by Angela Slatter

The Widow by Fiona Barton

EXposure by Helen Dunmore (Come on, give me a break! Nobody writes books starting with X!)

You Can’t Say That by Ken Livingstone

Zero K by Don DeLillo

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To help you decide which three to choose, here’s a little information about the contenders…

Enigma by Robert Harris

A gripping World War II mystery novel with a cryptographic twist, Enigma‘s hero is Tom Jericho, a brilliant British mathematician working as a member of the team struggling to crack the Nazi Enigma code. The plot is pure fiction but the historical background, Alan Turing’s famous wartime computing project that cracked the German U-boat communications code, is real and accurately portrayed.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

They have lived for centuries in a house of legend and mystery in upper Illinois — and they are not like other midwesterners. Rarely encountered in daylight hours, their children are curious and wild; their old ones have survived since before the Sphinx first sank its paws deep in Egyptian sands. And some sleep in beds with lids. Now the house is being readied in anticipation of the gala homecoming that will gather together the farflung branches of this odd and remarkable family. But in the midst of eager anticipation, a sense of doom pervades. For the world is changing. And death, no stranger, will always shadow this most singular family

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Rose Janko is missing. It has been seven years since she disappeared, and nobody said a word. Now, following the death of his wife, her father Leon feels compelled to find her. Rumour had it she ran off when her baby boy was born with the family’s genetic disorder. Leon is not so sure. He wants to know the truth and he hires a private investigator to discover it – Ray Lovell.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Reader, I murdered him. A Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre. Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

1970s Afghanistan: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives…

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

The tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women.

The Queen’s Caprice by Marjorie Bowen

There have been few more controversial figures in British history than Mary Queen of Scots. In this thrilling novel she is bought vividly back to life. She is a woman shrouded in secrecy and surrounded by violence who has learnt to use her desirability to intoxicate her subjects into carrying out her will. Yet despite this natural authority she cannot escape the domineering men who not only sway the court but the opinion of the people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.

You Can’t Say That by Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone is a controversial left-wing Labour politician and former London Mayor. Written in Livingstone’s unmistakable voice, by turns angrily sincere about social justice, wickedly droll and gossipy, and surprisingly wistful about people he has known and loved, this is a hugely important and remarkable book from one of the very few respected politicians at work today.

Please vote for the ones you think I should add to my summer list. You can vote for as many (or as few) as you like, and the three books with the most votes will win a place…

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Results to be announced sometime after the tennis is over…
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C'MON ANDY!
C’MON ANDY!

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HAVE A GREAT WEEK 😀