If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again…

…aka New Year’s Resolutions…

So! Last year at this time I set myself some reading resolutions for 2016. Time to see just how badly I did! And then to set myself up for another bout of humiliation next year. Still, you know what they say…’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive. (I’m pretty sure all these cliché writers had massive TBRs too.)

The 2016 Results

OK, there will be no unseemly laughter, catcalling or crowing, is that clear? Anyone who emits so much as a giggle will be sent to stand in the corner, and a guffaw will earn the perpetrator two hours in the public stocks – I have been collecting rotten tomatoes specially…

No, Darcy, not even you!
No, Darcy, not even you!

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 18 books during the year, and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 25 to 12.

The Result: Oh, dear! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Well, I suppose it’s best to get the worst one over with first. Ahem! OK, I took 63 books for review over the year, and I have 30 outstanding at year end, of which 17 are overdue. What can I say? I’m weak! This dramatic failure goes a long way to explain the rest of my results…

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2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

The Result: Er… 8. 66%. Two-thirds. OK, OK – failed!

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3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total to 130.

The Result: The final total is… 181!

b) Read at least 35 books that have been on the TBR since 2014 or earlier.

The Result: A miserable… 14!

c) Read at least 45 books that went onto the TBR in 2015.

The Result: So near, and yet… so far! 44!

FAILED! FAILED! FAILED!

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4) New-to-me authors.

a) No more than 20 books by new-to-me authors to be added to the TBR during 2016.

The Result: I really don’t want to tell you this!! Really!! OK, here goes… 53!!

b) Read at least 20 catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed.

The Result: Lucky for some! But not me… 13!

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5) Classics

Read at least 10 GAN Quest novels and at least 5 other classics, including Dickens.

The Result: 7 GAN Quest books read in the year (or abandoned, which is much the same thing), 6 other classics read, including Dickens. Ooh, almost a partial success, but overall… a failure!

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6) Read at least 12 sci-fi/fantasy novels, mixed between classic and new.

The Result: A totally pathetic… 4!!

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I am now popping outside for a moment to throw those rotten tomatoes at myself… back soon!

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Resolutions for 2017

Right! (Does anyone know how to get tomato stains out?) This year I’m completely confident I’ll achieve all my resolutions… maybe even over-achieve! You do believe me… don’t you? I’m going to try to be a little more realistic this time…

I know you've seen this one before, but I just love it so much!
I know you’ve seen this one before, but I just love it so much!

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 36 books during the year, averaging 3 a month, and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 30 to 20, none of which are overdue. This means I’ll be reading roughly 4 a month. If I can stick to that, all the other resolutions should be easy…

2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

I’m sticking with that – it seems as if it should be easily achievable. Though I thought that last year too…

3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total from 181 to 150.

Should be possible, though it will depend on how many books move from the wishlist to the TBR…

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

I currently have a ridiculous 103 books that have been on the TBR for more than a year (because of my addiction to review copies). But realistically it’ll be a slow job to reduce this figure, so I’m only aiming to cut them by a third. With luck I might overachieve on this since a lot of them are classics and GAN books.

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

I have 78 books outstanding from 2016, including nearly all of my review copy backlog. If I can resist adding so many new books this year, then I should be able to read the majority of these.

This one's just 'cos I needed cheering up!
This one’s just ‘cos I needed cheering up!

4) Classics

Read 20 classics. I’m not completely abandoning the GAN Quest – some of the books on my Classics Club list are Great American Novel contenders, and there are still a few of the last batch on my TBR – but I’m not setting a separate target for this year. 

5) Other Stuff

I’m not setting targets for science fiction, the Around the World Challenge, or catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed, but I’ll still be aiming to read several from each category. I’ll also be setting myself another little challenge – details next week – but otherwise my main concentration this year will be reading stuff I already have, and trying not to add too many new books.

Wish me luck!

fireworks

HAPPY NEW YEAR!
LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

The Final Countdown plus Challenges Report…

TBR Year-End Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So, time for 2016’s final count to see how I did over the year…

tbr-dec-2016

Well, I know you won’t believe me, but despite the fact that the overall total has gone up, I’m going to declare this a major victory. Firstly, it’s only increased by 12 overall. The TBR (books I own) has increased by nearly thirty, but the wishlists (books I don’t yet own) have fallen. This is due to my wonderful system of sticking all the books I’d like to read on my Amazon wishlist and then snapping them up any time they go on sale – and anyone who Kindles will know that books go on sale all the time. And the jolly thing is that piles of Kindle books don’t take up nearly as much room as piles of paper books.

ostrichSecondly, after a major splurge on review books in the middle of the year, I have made a serious effort to stop requesting so many, and the number outstanding is finally beginning to drop.

But thirdly – and the real reason I’m feeling rather smug – is that in the middle of the year I joined the Classics Club, and this involved adding between 40 and 50 books to either the TBR or the wishlist. So for the end of year total to have only increased by 12 means it would in fact have reduced by a decent amount if not for those added classics. And the Classics Club challenge runs over five years, so it doesn’t stress me out that my overall total includes nearly 90 classics at the moment, since I only intend to read about twenty a year, regardless of how quickly I acquire them.

I can hear you laughing, but I do genuinely feel more in control of the TBR than I have in ages…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been concentrating since then on bringing review copies under control, but I’ve seen a little bit of the world nonetheless…

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I went for a looooong sea voyage in the company of Cap’n Ahab, Ishmael and the boys from the Pequod. I’m trying to only add books I recommend to my Around the World list, but I’m slotting Moby-Dick in for the Pacific meantime, to be replaced later if I read something I prefer. I visited 19th century New Brunswick in Canada to witness a true crime and subsequent trial in Black River Road by Debra Komar. Then I was shown the horror of the WW2 fire-bombing of Dresden in Germany in the wonderful Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. My last trip was closer to home and considerably more relaxing, if you discount a murder or two – north to the Scottish Highlands in the company of Anthony Wynne in Murder of a Lady.

Since it’s the end of the year, here’s the full list so far…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The Detours

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been so far…

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing
  6. Channel Islands – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  7. Australian Outback – Fear is the Rider
  8. Portugal – The High Mountains of Portugal
  9. Milan, Italy – The Murdered Banker
  10. Madrid, Spain – A Heart So White
  11. Saturn – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Kabul, Afghanistan – The Kite Runner
  13. Vatican City – Conclave
  14. New Brunswick, Canada – Black River Road
  15. Dresden, Germany – Slaughterhouse-Five
  16. Scottish Highlands – Murder of a Lady

23 down, 57 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

So far, I’ve read four from my Classics Club list – a little behind schedule, but I’m expecting to make that up quickly now that I’ve got fewer review copies to contend with.

  1. 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie – a 5-star re-read. Classic crime writing at its best.
  2. Passing by Nella Larson – 4 stars for this book about race and belonging.
  3. Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville – just 2 stars for that pesky and apparently ubiquitous whale.
  4. The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – 5 stars for the book on which Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is based.

4 down, 86 to go!

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Here’s to another great year of reading in 2017! 😀

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

characters-in-costume-logo

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

Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

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…

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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.

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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…

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Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

TBR Thursday 84… Resolutions and #AW80 Update

Episode 84…

 

Ooh, no movement on the TBR this week – still on 165. Not going down but, on the other hand, not going up! I declare that a major success…

New Year’s Resolutions Update

 

So here we are, a third of the way through the year already. Seems like a good time to see how I’m getting along with those New Year’s Resolutions I committed to…

 

tom cruise

Oh, for goodness sake, Tom, do stop laughing! Here goes…

 

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 18 books during the year, and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 25 to 12.

Current status: Hmm… I currently have 31 outstanding – oops! And I’ve already taken 23 this year…

Projection: Will need more than a miracle!

 

2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

Current status: 5 read to date

Projection: Going great!

 

3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total to 130.

Current status: 165 – up 11 since the beginning of the year.

Projection:

yes minister gif

b) Read at least 35 books that have been on the TBR since 2014 or earlier.

Current status: 9 read to date

Projection: Still within the realms of possibility…

c) Read at least 45 books that went onto the TBR in 2015.

Current status: 27 read to date

Projection: Woohoo! #GoGirl

 

4) New-to-me authors.

a) No more than 20 books by new-to-me authors to be added to the TBR during 2016.

Current status: 21 added to date

Projection: Oh dear, oh dear!!

b) Read at least 20 catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed.

Current status: 8 read to date

Projection: Doing well! (If only I hadn’t added all those other new authors that is…)

cartoon laughing gif

5) Classics

Read at least 10 GAN Quest novels and at least 5 other classics, including Dickens.

Current status: 4 GAN Quest books read to date (or abandoned, which is much the same thing), 4 other classics read, including Dickens.

Projection: Feelin’ smug…

 

6) Read at least 12 sci-fi/fantasy novels, mixed between classic and new.

Current status: 3 read to date

Projection: Not too bad…

* * * * *

Pretty good so far, I reckon – only 2 outright failures and a couple that it looks like I’ll definitely achieve. Unless I get distracted by new, shiny things…

* * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – #AW80Books

Hosted by Sarah and Lucy at the wonderful Hard Book Habit…

I didn’t  make it to any of the places on the main route in April, but I had a few interesting detours…

I had a nice trip to the Channel Islands with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Then I got chased all over the Australian Outback by a hairy monster in Fear is the Rider. It was a relief after that to have a magical break in The High Mountains of Portugal.

So here’s the summary to date. I’ve found books for some of the places now, but recommendations for any of the places marked in red still welcome…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express
  3. FranceThe Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – I Am No One
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

The Detours

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been so far…

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing
  6. Channel Islands – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  7. Australian Outback – Fear is the Rider
  8. Portugal – The High Mountains of Portugal

 

12 down, 68 to go!

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Substance submerged by style…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

a heart so whiteA few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan’s mother. So Teresa would have been Juan’s aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn’t have been…

There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth’s reaction on being told of Duncan’s murder, illustrating a major theme – the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn’t. An interesting thought.

In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías’ prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it’s up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.

Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader’s interest, I fear.

To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)

As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa’s door and drop her off and then, once I’ve done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we’re married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I’ve chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don’t deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there’s no doubt that we’re going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn’t want to.

This is an example of both what I liked and didn’t about the book. It’s an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan’s uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it’s one of the least waffly passages in the book.

Javier Marìas
Javier Marìas

In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías’ themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa’s death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader’s head so often, that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.

I’m sighing with frustration because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it’s overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I’d read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don’t.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

Make way for the soprano…

 

It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…

 

Tuesday Tec

.

The Murdered Banker

 

by Augusto De Angelis

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the murdered banker

Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.

“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?”
“There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.”
A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful.
“Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”

Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…

opera gif

I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.

“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”

Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.

But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.

Augusto De Angelis with his niece
Augusto De Angelis with his niece

There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.

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

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Risen apes, fallen angels…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

the high mountains of portugalIn a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal’s African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as ‘a gift’. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down…

So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad’s.

Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs’ grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.

If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.

The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don’t get along, but Martel’s storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ’s miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.

Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal
Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal

It’s always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I’m not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.

They never look very big on the table, the bodies. It’s built to accommodate the largest frames, there’s that. And they’re naked. But it’s something else. That parcel of the being called the soul – weighing twenty-one grams, according to the experiments of the American doctor Duncan MacDougall – takes up a surprising amount of space, like a loud voice. In its absence, the body seems to shrink. That is, before the bloat of decomposition.

And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It’s 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter’s family originated.

It’s in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don’t want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.

In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too, in its own way, is the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom to be found in the shadows of houses, in the courtyards of modest restaurants, on the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds. The night, in Portugal, is a friend.

Yann Martel
Yann Martel

The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he’s also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn’t mean we couldn’t be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.

But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.

PS I have tried to avoid revealing too many details in this review. If you’re planning on reading the book, I strongly advise that you avoid the various press reviews, which seem to have been vying with each other to ruin it by giving details of the endings of each of the three sections. Fortunately I didn’t read any of them till after I’d finished the book, and thus had the joy of discovering it unspoiled.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Thriller! Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

HE’S BEHIND YOU!!

 

“…get us out of here, for God’s sake get us out of here quick!”

She was still staring wildly into the scrub. Her fear seeped into his spine. There was something there in the low trees, something terrible…

Tuesday Thriller white gunslinger

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

Woo! A non-stop thrill-fest indeed! The author jumps right into the story so that from the first paragraph the tension starts ratcheting up. John’s driving a Honda, not built for this terrain. The Man has taken Katie’s Land Cruiser – bigger and tougher. The only advantage John and Katie have is that their car is faster, so long as the road is good. But this road doesn’t sound good at all…

Danger sign

Neither of them have any idea why the Man wants to kill them. In fact, they can’t even be sure he’s a man – he’s huge and hairy and smells rancid, like decaying flesh. (I think I met him up the dancin’ once.) And he doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood. They don’t have time to speculate – all they can do is keep driving and hope they can put enough distance between them to get to safety before they’re caught. But they’re heading the wrong way – straight into the danger zone – and they can’t turn round because HE’S BEHIND THEM!!!

fear is the rider

 

Brilliant stuff – pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Fortunately John knows cars and is a skilful driver. Once Katie gets over her initial terror, she pulls her weight too, and she knows more about the Outback than John. But neither of them is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. Phew! A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff! I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while now…

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

 

* * * * *

Yippee Ki Yay rating:     😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

 

It's a Bruce!
It’s a Bruce!

Amazon UK Link
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Sweet and sour…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

 

the guernsey literary and potato peel societyNot long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…

The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.

And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.

German troops marching along Guernsey's seafront during the occupation in WW2
German troops marching along Guernsey’s seafront during the occupation in WW2

The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.

Mary Ann Shaffer (seated) and Annie Barrows
Mary Ann Shaffer (seated) and Annie Barrows

The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.

Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 79… and End of Month Round-Up

People’s Choice 10 – The Result…

 

Well! The People’s Choice Begorrathon Special was exciting! One book raced into a clear read from the beginning and held off all challengers as it stormed towards the finishing line. So I hereby declare…

This Week’s Winner…

 

instructions for a heatwave

The Blurb – It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children — two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce — back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share. Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth book is the work of an outstanding novelist at the height of her powers.

Thanks to Naomi at Consumed by Ink for the review that brought this book to my attention.

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And thanks to all who voted! It wouldn’t be the People’s Choice without you!

The book will be added to my TBR – now all I have to do is find time to read it!

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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…

TBR March 2016

Woohoo! The mathematically astute amongst you will note that although the official TBR has gone up, the overall total has gone down! This is due to books moving off the wishlist onto the TBR – see? I’m the Queen of Willpower and Spreadsheets – I’m so proud of myself. If I continue at this rate, the TBR will be clear by… 2038!

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Reading Ireland Month – #begorrathon16…

 

I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Begorrathon throughout March, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too. I’d like to thank Cathy at 746 Books for creating this event and for all the hard work she’s done to make the bookish side of it a huge success. Not only has she inspired people all over the blogosphere to participate, but she’s pulled all the posts together to make them easy to access – here’s the link. And she has been the major contributor herself, with a series of brilliant posts that have introduced me to loads of new authors and taught me a lot about Irish literature.

Well done, Cathy – take a bow!!

 

I also must thank Cathy for her great giveaway, WHICH I WON!! Look what I WON!!!

* * * * *

the visitorThe Visitor is the haunting tale of Anastasia King, who, at the age of twenty-two, returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin – the very house where she grew up – after six long years away. She has been in Paris, comforting her disgraced and dying mother, who ran away from a disastrous marriage to Anastasia’s late father, her grandmother’s only son. It is a story of Dublin and the unkind, ungenerous, emotionally unreachable side of the Irish temperament. Recently found in a university archive, The Visitor was written in the mid-1940s but was never published. This miraculous literary discovery deepens the oeuvre of Maeve Brennan and confirms her status as one of the best Irish writers of stories since Joyce.

* * * * *

the long gaze backThe Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is an exhilarating anthology of short stories by some of the most gifted women writers this island has ever produced. Taken together, the collected works of these writers reveal an enrapturing, unnerving, and piercingly beautiful mosaic of a lively literary landscape. The Long Gaze Back features 22 new stories by some of the most talented Irish women writers working today. The anthology presents an inclusive and celebratory portrait of the high calibre of contemporary literature in Ireland.

These stories run the gamut from heartbreaking to humorous, but each leaves a lasting impression. They chart the passions, obligations, trials and tribulations of a variety of vividly-drawn characters with unflinching honesty and relentless compassion. These are stories to savour.

Aren’t I lucky? 😀

 

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – #AW80Books

Hosted by Sarah and Lucy at the wonderful Hard Book Habit…

Well, having spent the entire month in Ireland, unsurprisingly that’s the only destination I’m adding this month, and of all the books I’ve read the one I’m going to choose for this challenge is…

the heather blazing

Click to see the review

So here’s the summary to date…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express
  3. FranceThe Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – I Am No One
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

I’ve got books planned for some of the gaps, but am still open to suggestions for any of the places highlighted in red. Any genre…

The Detours

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been so far…

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing

 

9 down, 71 to go!

 

* * * * *

Phew! It’s been a fun month…thanks for sharing it with me!

TBR Thursday 77… and the #AW80Books Challenge…

Episode 77…

 

Oh dear! The TBR is still going up – by 1 to 165! Part of the problem is that I seem to be reading lots of ridiculously long books at the moment. Question – does any crime novel really need to be over 600 pages?

So only a couple are likely to escape from the log-jam any time soon…

Factual

 

gandhi and churchillHaving enjoyed two of Herman’s other books, The Cave and the Light and The Scottish Enlightenment, I have high hopes for this one, which was kindly provided by Santa.

The Blurb says: In this fascinating and meticulously researched book, bestselling historian Arthur Herman sheds new light on two of the most universally recognizable icons of the twentieth century, and reveals how their forty-year rivalry sealed the fate of India and the British Empire. They were born worlds apart: Winston Churchill to Britain’s most glamorous aristocratic family, Mohandas Gandhi to a pious middle-class household in a provincial town in India. Yet Arthur Herman reveals how their lives and careers became intertwined as the twentieth century unfolded. Both men would go on to lead their nations through harrowing trials and two world wars–and become locked in a fierce contest of wills that would decide the fate of countries, continents, and ultimately an empire.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

avenue of mysteriesCourtesy of NetGalley. Hmm… I can’t say the early reviews on this are terribly promising, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: As we grow older – most of all, in what we remember and what we dream – we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present. As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but his dreams and memories will travel with him; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. ‘An aura of fate had marked him,’ John Irving writes. ‘The chain of events, the links in our lives – what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do – all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.’

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past – in Mexico – collides with his future.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

 

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – #AW80Books

 

For someone who says I don’t do challenges, I somehow seem to keep being tempted by them! This is another of the kind I like, relaxed, no strict rules, and most of all a completely open timescale.

Hosted by Sarah and Lucy at the wonderful Hard Book Habit, here’s what they say…

Here’s the deal.  You’ll need to read 80 books set or connected with the random destinations of your choice, then you blog about each book that you read en route. You can choose any books you like – this challenge is not limited to fiction – and the only catch is that you must read at least one book connected to each continent, one sea-based book, and a book that involves travel – think the Orient Express, flight, hot-air balloons, train journeys, car trips, etc… the rest is up to you.

Since I already tend to range fairly widely around the world of fiction (I think), I reckon this should be a challenge that I can mostly meet from my normal reading. So I thought it might be fun to go back to the original book that inspired the challenge and see if I can find books for each stage of Phineas Fogg’s original journey. Wikipedia not only tells me where Fogg and his faithful servant Passepartout stopped, but they provide a map!

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

Personally I think their route looks fairly dull, so I hope to do plenty of detours along the way. Since the challenge started at the beginning of the year, I’m backdating, so I’ve marked off any places I’ve already been, and I’ll only be including books I recommend (unless I get stuck). Here’s the plan…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express
  3. FranceThe Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – I Am No One
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

Some of these will be harder than others so a bit of creativity might be required. Suggestions very welcome, especially for the places I’ve highlighted in purple, so please get your thinking caps on! Any genre…

The Detours

 

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been in the last couple of months.

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus

 

8 down, 72 to go!

 

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The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

Weighed in the balances…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the heather blazingOn the last day of the legal term, High Court judge Eamon Redmond will deliver a judgement and then head off for the summer to Cush on the coast of County Wexford, where he has spent all his summers since childhood. Outwardly he is a successful man, well respected in the country, an advisor to the government, and someone who takes the responsibility of his position seriously. But he is also reserved, his life ruled by order, and somewhat remote even from his closest family. As the summer progresses, he finds events in the present force him to revisit and re-assess his past.

Like so many of Tóibín’s books, this is almost entirely a character study with very little in the way of plot. Generally speaking, that doesn’t work for me, but Tóibín’s deceptively plain prose and in-depth understanding of the people and communities he’s writing about exert an almost hypnotic effect on me, drawing me into the lives of the people he offers up for inspection – characters so entirely real and well-drawn that it becomes hard after a time to think of them as in any way fictional. This effect is magnified by his siting of so many of his novels in and around the town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up – a place whose culture and society I have gradually come to feel I understand almost as intimately as my own hometown.

History plays a major role in this book, both personal and political. Eamon’s mother died in childbirth leaving him an only child to be brought up by his father and extended family. His grandfather was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and his father too played a part, albeit small, in the troubled history of the country. Through them, Eamon is introduced early to the politics of Fianna Fáil, and the opportunity in his late teens to make a speech in front of the revered leader of the uprising, Éamon de Valera, gains him the support that sets him on the path to his present position. Yet now decades later, he is a pillar of the Establishment, delivering judgements on Nationalist terrorists.

begorrathon 2016

The same dichotomy exists in his personal life. The judgement he is about to give is on a schoolgirl, an unmarried mother, who wishes to go back to school. The Catholic school has expelled her on the grounds that her return would send a dangerous moral message to their other pupils. His musings show his doubts over the religious aspects built into the Constitution, and in his own ability to decide right and wrong. He considers using his judgement to redefine the family as it was understood when the Constitution was written, but in the end, through a kind of cowardice, he decides in favour of the school. It is a feature of his remoteness that he gives no consideration to the fact that his own daughter is pregnant and unmarried when reaching his decision – this is a man whose work and family are kept in strictly separate compartments.

Tóibín’s prose is always understated, relying on precision and clarity rather than poetic flourishes for its effect. Despite this, there is a deep emotionalism in his work, an utter truthfulness that can be, in its quietness, as devastating as any great overblown work of drama. In a book full of parallels, Eamon’s story is headed and tailed by two commonplace tragedies – his father’s stroke while Eamon was still at school, and his wife’s stroke and subsequent death in the present day. His early life is beautifully observed, with scenes such as the family gathering at Christmas showing all the depth of family and community in small town Ireland. And his courtship of Carmel, his future wife, is no Romeo and Juliet affair – it’s a truthful account of two young people coming together who share many of the same views on life and are able to compromise on the rest.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

It is in understanding Eamon’s childhood and early years that we come to understand the adult man, and in a sense his life and family history mirrors that of Ireland too – the tumultuous century of rebellions and civil strife drawing towards a quieter ending as Tóibín was writing in the early ’90s; the past not forgotten, the future not yet certain, the direction in the hands of those in power, many of whom would have to make major shifts in their political stance to achieve a hope of settled peace. Tóibín is never overtly political in his writing, but his deep insight into this society of Enniscorthy, built up layer on layer with each book he sets there, provides a microcosm for us to see the slow process of change taking place, the small shifts in attitude that gradually make the big political adjustments possible.

In truth, Eamon’s story didn’t resonate with me quite as deeply as Tóibín’s women, but I suspect that’s to do with my own gender rather than the book. Sometimes my lack of knowledge of Irish history left me feeling I wasn’t getting the full nuance of parts of the story. But it is another wonderful character study, moving and insightful, that adds a further dimension to Tóibín’s portrayal of this community. Coincidentally, I followed immediately on my reading of this book with Joyce’s Dubliners, and began to feel that, although Tóibín is working on small-town life and in full-length novels, in some ways his books have the same effect as Joyce’s stories – each one concentrating on a single aspect, but together building to give a complete and profound picture of a complexly intertwined society.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

black narcissusTill the rains break…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

Rumer Godden writes in a straightforward style, with little in the way of dramatic or poetical flourishes. But this simplicity is deceptive – she draws her characters with a surprisingly few strokes of her pen, and brings a haunting quality to her descriptions of place that allows her readers to understand the profound effect of it on the nuns. Sister Clodagh is young and inexperienced, but sure of her ability to lead – a confidence that isn’t completely shared by the Mother Superior back at the mother convent. Sister Blanche, known to all as Sister Honey, is sweet and kind, wanting to do her best for the children who attend the school and clinic. Sister Philippa and Sister Briony are the more experienced nuns, sensible and hard-working, Philippa in the gardens, and Briony heading up the clinic. And then there’s Sister Ruth, a troubled woman, full of jealousies and suppressed emotions; the kind of person no-one really wants around.

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

As they begin to settle into life at the convent, each of the nuns finds the isolation working on them in different ways. Sister Clodagh looks back to the events that brought her to a religious life, and for the first time finds herself questioning both her calling and her abilities. Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the garden, creating grandiose plans that the convent could never afford. Sister Honey finds herself becoming emotionally attached to the children to a degree beyond what is either wise or safe. And Sister Ruth struggles with the altitude, constantly complaining of headaches and stomach aches, and feeling that the other nuns don’t value her, especially Sister Clodagh. As time goes by, the Sisters begin to drift, almost dreamlike, away from the routines and religious observances that were once second nature to them, finding that the dramatic beauty and emptiness of the mountains somehow diminishes the things they once held precious.

Into this mix come the catalysts: the General’s heir, a rather beautiful young man, clad in silks and jewels, seeking an education; and Mr Dean, a man with a less than savoury reputation regarding women, but with a blatant masculinity that half-frightens, half-attracts the nuns. Mr Dean is the new General’s man, on whom the nuns must rely to get practical things done around the convent. He is not conventionally religious, constantly challenging Sister Clodagh’s rather glib attempts to create a replica of the mother convent here in a place with a very different culture and spirituality, and pointing out any time he feels she falls short of what she professes to believe. But it is Sister Ruth who reacts most strongly to Mr Dean, years of suppression breaking out into ever wilder longing and jealousy.

rumer_godden
Rumer Godden

The wonderful characterisation and atmospheric descriptions of this starkly unforgiving landscape provide a backdrop to the nuns’ struggle to stay on their religious path in this place they find so hauntingly mystical. For each, the experience will change her forever in ways she never imagined – some will find spiritual growth and a truer kind of faith, some will reach a reconciliation with events in their past, others will find their strength isn’t enough to come through the challenges of the place unscathed. Godden’s prose is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style. The story that starts off slowly and rather gently gradually works itself up to the heights of gothic horror, but told with enough restraint to keep it feeling completely authentic and believable. An excellent book – highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Godden’s work in the future.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the book: As an occasional feature throughout the year, I’ll be watching the “film of the book” with a view to seeing how the movie version works as an interpretation of a novel, or occasionally the reverse, when I’ll be reading the book of a film I love. Black Narcissus will be the first – to see the film review, click here…

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

😀 😀 😀 😀

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

snow blindThe place where nothing ever happens…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rookie cop Ari Thór Arason is so pleased to be offered a posting that he immediately accepts, even though it’s in the tiny town of Siglufjördur, so far north it’s closer to the Arctic than to Reykjavik. A place, so they say, where nothing ever happens. So when an elderly writer falls down a flight of stairs to his death everyone assumes it’s an accident, and when Ari Thór is reluctant to accept this, he is quickly warned off by his boss Tómas. But when a young woman is found unconscious in the snow and bleeding from a knife wound, even Tómas has to face up to the fact that crime has arrived in Siglufjördur.

This is described in the blurb as a ‘debut’, but I think it’s actually the second in a series although the first to be translated. There are references to what sounds like a previous story involving Ari Thór and his girlfriend Kristín, but this one works fine on its own and doesn’t give any major spoilers for the earlier book, should it ever appear.

The writing is excellent, and enhanced by a fine translation by Quentin Bates, who is himself a highly regarded crime writer. Jónasson slowly builds up a claustrophobic feeling to this small fishing community, approachable only by air or through a tunnel under the mountains, both of which routes become impossible as the winter snows deepen. Ari Thór finds himself feeling more and more cut off, emotionally as well as physically, especially since Kirstín hasn’t forgiven him for accepting the posting without discussing it with her. A newcomer to a place where families have to remain for generations before they are accepted as locals, Ari Thór finds himself in the position of an outsider in a community where everyone knows everything about their neighbours – or at least they think they do. But as Ari Thór continues to ask awkward questions, old scandals are disturbed and secrets begin to come to the surface.

Siglufjördur
Siglufjördur

The basic plot is very good. It’s a proper mystery, with motives and clues, and of course the isolated setting makes for a limited cast of suspects, especially since the death of the writer took place during a rehearsal of a play. Ari Thór is a good character, not in any way dysfunctional, but with enough of a past to make him interesting. And although he’s a policeman, his method of getting at the truth is based more on interviews and reading people than on DNA and autopsies. But despite the traditional feel of some aspects, the book doesn’t feel at all old-fashioned, since both the structure and the story are firmly modern. Some parts of the plot become clear relatively early, but there’s plenty still to be revealed as the book progresses, and the various strands are brought to credible and satisfying solutions.

It takes a while for the story to get going, and there are occasional dips in the pacing, mainly caused by Jónasson’s technique of giving the backstory of each character as he introduces them – sometimes more interesting and relevant than others, I found. And every now and then, the reader is suddenly given the solution to a little piece of the mystery without the characters doing anything to reveal it, which feels a little as if he hadn’t been able to see how to work it smoothly into the story. He also hit one of my pet hates when he would let Ari Thór learn something but not make the reader privy to it – done to keep up the tension, obviously, but again it feels as if he couldn’t always quite see how to give the clues but disguise them so the reader wouldn’t spot their significance.

Ragnar Jónasson
Ragnar Jónasson

However, these are all minor niggles and things that often show up in an author’s early books while they are still developing their skills. And the weaknesses are well outweighed by the book’s strengths – the excellent sense of place, strong characterisation, intriguing and credible plotting and high quality writing. I have already added his next book (or at least the next to be translated, though I believe it’s no.5 in the series! Why do they do that?!) to my wishlist and am looking forward to reading more of them, though I can’t help but feel that tiny Siglufjördur might end up being as dangerous a place to visit as Midsomer or Cabot Cove…

An interesting side-note – apparently Jónasson has translated many of Agatha Christie’s books into Icelandic. I wonder if that may be one reason why the plotting in this one is as strong and as mystery-based as it is…

This was a People’s Choice winner. Well done, People! You picked a good one! And thanks, Raven, for the review that originally drew it to my attention.

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