Six Degrees of Separation – From Funder to…

Chain links…

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

Stasiland by Anna Funder. I haven’t read this non-fiction book, but here’s what Goodreads tells me…

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany…

Sounds rather good and has a zillion glowing reviews. Hmm, one for the wishlist, I think!

East Germany of course was communist before the fall of the Wall, and that leads me to my first book…

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The story of Ira Ringold, a Jewish-American radio star who, at the height of his stardom marries Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage is disastrous and, when Ira finally leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. The second book of Roth’s wonderful American Trilogy.

America’s not too keen on communism, but the country in my next book would claim to have made communism work…

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. The first in the long-running Inspector Chen series, this tells of the murder of a young woman who was a model worker under the Communist regime. The author’s depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life.

China can’t claim to be the first communist state, though – that honour belongs to the country in my next book…

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus. A book that takes us from one death-bed – Tolstoy’s – to another – Lenin’s, and along the way tells us of the early development of the propaganda methods used by Lenin and Stalin. Told with all of Kalfus’ sparkling storytelling skills, this has a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes.

Communism may have failed fairly spectacularly in Russia but that doesn’t stop revolutionaries attempting to impose it in other countries from time to time, like the country in my next book…

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti. Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s, following the failed revolution there. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. This is a beautifully written book and profoundly moving. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair.

The communists may not have been able to hang on to power in Uruguay, but unfortunately they have a stranglehold in the country in my next book…

The Accusation by Bandi. This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea, and smuggled out of the country to be published in the West. The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

One day, hopefully, the 38th Parallel will no longer form a divide between North and South, and Korea will be united again as one free democratic state. Which brings me back to Berlin…

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré. The classic that changed the tone of spy thrillers – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like, as world weary British spymaster Leamas takes on his East German counterparts. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

* * * * *

So from Funder to le Carré via communism, communism, communism, communism, communism and communism!

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

TBR Thursday 235… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I usually start off pretty well and then it all goes horribly wrong later in the year. However, due to a severe dose of plagueomania, for most of March I’ve been struggling to read anything except thrillers and mysteries, so I fear the horribly wrong bit has started early this year !

Here goes – the first check-in of the year…

Actually I thought the reading targets figures might be much worse than they are. The classics are taking the worst hit as generally speaking they require the most concentration. The Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge won’t get underway properly until I finish the Around the World Challenge, which should happen in April but may drift to May.

However, the TBR figures are going in completely the wrong direction! After exercising iron willpower over new releases all last year I seem to have gone mad this year and have acquired about a million! Well, slight exaggeration but it won’t be if I keep going on like this. Must do better!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and this quarter I’ve done most of my travelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. One is still patiently waiting for me to review it – better do it soon before the holiday tan wears off! It’ll appear in the next round-up.

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I visited the Suez Canal only to find that I’d turned up in the middle of the Suez Crisis to witness the dying throes of the British Empire, in PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, the first ever Booker Prize winner.

I also had a few detours this quarter. First, I went to the Swedish island of Öland, where I got involved with the disappearance of a little boy many years earlier, in Johan Theorin’s excellent Echoes From the Dead. Off to Sicily next where I got caught up in Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy, spending some time with the decaying aristocracy in Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Then I found myself in Ruritania, (which may have been a fictional country but is still probably better known than many a real one so I’ve decided it counts!) and had great fun with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll as he impersonated the Ruritanian King in Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. I also returned to China, a destination I’d already visited. I enjoyed the magically realistic look at life for the modern urban Chinese woman in An Yu’s Braised Pork so much I’ve decided to swap it in to replace the one I’d previously listed for China.

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

76 down, 4 to go!

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The Classics Club

Although I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, I had a backlog of four from the previous quarter still to review. So six reviews this quarter, and one still to review which will appear next time…

57. The New Road by Neil Munro – Set midway between the two major Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, this great adventure story tells of two men travelling north into Highland country at the time when General Wade was building his New Road as part of the effort to pacify the clans. Entertaining and very well written, although the heavy sprinkling of Scots language and rhythms combined with its assumption of familiarity with the historical context might make it a demanding read for non-Scots. But for me, 5 stars.

58. The Go-Between by LP Hartley – A re-read of a book I loved in my youth and happily I loved it just as much all over again. The narrator Leo looks back to the summer of 1900 from a distance of fifty years. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever. 5 stars

59. The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – A miserable and misanthropic portrayal of small-town Scottish life in the mid-19th century. I admired the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about some aspects of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. 3 generous stars.

60. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – No such reservations for this wonderful classic set during the Spanish Civil War. A love story, a story of the horror of war, of loyalty and comradeship, and surprisingly with a very strong female character at its heart, there is so much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. 5 supernova-bright stars.

61. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – Set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, this is Dickens’ first attempt at the historical novel. The structure he uses is not wholly successful, but it’s filled as always with some delightfully original characters and also has some very fine mob scenes that hint at what would come in his later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. 4 stars because I’m comparing it to other Dickens’ novels, but would be 5 stars if compared to almost any other author’s work.

62. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – In this excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa, Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man has on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes. Not an easy read, but more than worth the effort. 5 stars.

A fantastic quarter! I hope my next batch of classics are just as good!

Update to the list: I abandoned the third book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, Grey Granite, at too early a stage to review. (If you’re interested in why, here’s a link to my comments on Goodreads.) So I’m replacing it with The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. Details will appear on a future TBR post.

62 down, 28 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve continued to read a ton of vintage crime, I’ve only actually read two for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

35.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – When a rich old lady is killed in her country house, the various members of the household come under suspicion. This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. Great fun to see how the Queen of Crime began! 4½ stars.

36.  Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley – Another murder in a country house, this time of an American business tycoon. Trent is a journalist and amateur detective who soon thinks he knows what happened, but has his own reasons for not revealing his suspicions. From 1913, it’s an intriguing look at one stage on the road to development of the genre. 4 stars.

36 down, 66 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Although this challenge hasn’t really started yet, it would be crazy not to link Hemingway’s classic to it…

1.  For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. This story of love set amidst war is one of the best known books in English about the Spanish Civil War. The wonderful writing and profound insight into Spanish culture and the realities of war mean it richly deserves its status as a major classic. A glowing 5 stars and a great way to start the challenge!

1 down, and who knows how many to go!

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Another great quarter’s reading, even if the last month has thrown me off track a little! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker

Asking for trouble…

The fretful porpentine and I were full of good intentions to read an Irish horror story every week during March as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month. But then we were attacked by plagueophobia and you know what they say about the best laid plans! However, here we are, sneaking one in on the very last day of the event, and just as the porpy goes off into hibernation for the summer…

The Judge’s House
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Student Malcolm Malcolmson is looking for somewhere where he can study in peace without the distraction of friends or family, so he heads randomly for the little town of Benchurch. Putting up for the night at the only inn, the next day he looks around for a house that he can rent for a few weeks…

There was only one place which took his fancy, and it certainly satisfied his wildest ideas regarding quiet; in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it – desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation.

Oh dear! When will people learn that isolated houses are never a good idea? You’d think the words of the house agent would have warned Malcolm…

“To tell you the truth,” said he, “I should be only too happy, on behalf of the owners, to let anyone have the house rent free for a term of years if only to accustom the people here to see it inhabited. It has been so long empty that some kind of absurd prejudice has grown up about it, and this can be best put down by its occupation – if only,” he added with a sly glance at Malcolmson, “by a scholar like yourself, who wants its quiet for a time.”

The good landlady of the inn seems to share that “absurd prejudice”…

“Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale as she spoke.

This would be quite enough for normal people, but Malcolm pressed for more information…

She told him that it was so called locally because it had been many years before – how long she could not say, as she was herself from another part of the country, but she thought it must have been a hundred years or more – the abode of a judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences and his hostility to prisoners at Assizes. As to what there was against the house, itself she could not tell. She had often asked, but no one could inform her; but there was a general feeling that there was something, and for her own part she would not take all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank and stay in the house an hour by herself.

Naturally, this decides Malcolm, and paying the rent for three months in advance, he prepares to move in, reassuring the landlady he’ll be fine…

“… my dear Mrs. Witham, indeed you need not be concerned about me! A man who is reading for the Mathematical Tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow of his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Yeah. Well. We’ll see.

Malcolm hires Mrs Dempster to “do” for him and she’s of a more prosaic turn of mind about the horrors of the house…

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things – except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles, and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night. Look at the wainscot of the room! It is old – hundreds of years old! Do you think there’s no rats and beetles there! And do you imagine, sir, that you won’t see none of them? Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats; and don’t you get to think anything else!”

Hmm, personally I’m not sure Malcolm wouldn’t be better off with bogies than rats and beetles! Especially when it’s late at night and he’s all alone in the dark, and suddenly all the noise of scampering rats behind the wainscot ceases and in the sudden silence he looks up from his books…

There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.

Ooh, I say! But is the rat simply a rat? Or is it something more malevolent, something to do with the picture of the old judge hanging on the wall? And why does the rat always run up the rope that hangs down from the alarm bell in the roof?

“It is,” said the doctor slowly, “the very rope which the hangman used for all the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancour!”

And yet still our brave but foolish hero is determined to stay in the house…

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Goodness, this is a good one! The porpy and I were proper scared, both by the rats and by the… other stuff! It has touches of humour in the early stages but it gradually descends into something very dark indeed. A warning to us all not to rent a house that’s full of rats… or the ghosts of hanging judges…

If you’re brave enough to want to read it, here’s a link…

NB The two great illustrations are by Walt Sturrock.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful porpentine rating:   😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

TBR Thursday 234…

Episode 234

It seems very odd to me that my plagueophobia seems to be stopping me from reading but not stopping me from acquiring books! The TBR is back at 214 – up 6! 

(Nope, no reason for this gif other than that it makes me happy!)

So I’ve thrown my reading list out of the window (making sure no one was within six feet of it at the time, of course) and picked some lighter reading till I get back to normal…

Historical Crime Fiction

Execution by SJ Parris

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. I read and enjoyed the first book in this series when it came out way back in 2011, and the second book has been lingering unread on my TBR since 2014. The series is now up to number 6, and tragically, despite being so far behind, I couldn’t resist… well, it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots, after all…

The Blurb says: The sixth Tudor thriller featuring Giordano Bruno: heretic, philosopher and spy. Perfect for fans of C. J. Sansom.

England, 1586.

A TREASONOUS CONSPIRACY
Giordano Bruno returns to England to bring shocking new intelligence to Sir Francis Walsingham. A band of Catholic Englishmen are plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth and spring Mary Queen of Scots from prison to take the English throne in her place.

A DEADLY TRAP
Bruno is surprised to find that Walsingham is aware of the plot, led by the young, wealthy noble Anthony Babington, and is allowing it to progress. His hope is that Mary will put her support in writing and condemn herself to a traitor’s death.

A QUEEN IN MORTAL DANGER
Bruno is tasked with going undercover to join the conspirators. Can he stop them before he is exposed? Either way a queen will die; Bruno must make sure it is the right one. [FF says: I wonder which Queen will die? Tense, isn’t it…? 😉 ]

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Crime

All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I used to love this series in the early days but gradually I felt the characters evolved from being quirky to being outright cartoonish – I felt MacBride had bored of his own creations and wasn’t taking it seriously any more. So I gave up after book 8. However HC sent me this one – book 12 – and I’m happy to jump back in and see if he’s got back into his stride…

The Blurb says: Darkness is coming…

Inspector Logan McRae was looking forward to a nice simple case – something to ease him back into work after a year off on the sick. [FF says: Again? I’m sure this is at least the third book that has begun with Logan returning after a year off on the sick. Perhaps he should consider retraining. 🤔] But the powers-that-be have other ideas…

The high-profile anti-independence campaigner, Professor Wilson, has gone missing, leaving nothing but bloodstains behind. There’s a war brewing between the factions for and against Scottish Nationalism. Infighting in the police ranks. And it’s all playing out in the merciless glare of the media. Logan’s superiors want results, and they want them now.

Someone out there is trying to make a point, and they’re making it in blood. If Logan can’t stop them, it won’t just be his career that dies.

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Thriller

The Split by Sharon Bolton

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. A new thriller from Sharon Bolton is always a special treat – one of my favourite current authors…

The Blurb says: She’s got nowhere else to hide…and now he’s coming for her.

Two years ago Felicity Lloyd desperately signed up for an extended research trip working on the remote island of South Georgia.

It was her only way to escape.

And now he’s coming for her.

Freddie Lloyd has just got out of prison for murder and is on his way to where Felicity is hiding. And this time, he won’t stop until he finds her.

Because no matter how far you run, some secrets will always catch up with you…

Tense, gripping and with a twist you won’t see coming, [FF says: well, I will now since you’ve told me to expect it! 🙄] Sharon Bolton is back in an explosive new thriller about a woman on the run…

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Thriller

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

Courtesy of HarperCollins again. I was a huge fan of Deaver’s earliest books way back in the Dark Ages, but he lost me with his hugely successful and long-running Lincoln Rhyme series – I could never buy into the character, I’m afraid. So I’m delighted to see him starting a new series and can’t wait to see if this will revive the old magic for me!

The Blurb says: From the bestselling and award-winning master of suspense, the first novel in a thrilling new series, introducing Colter Shaw.

“You have been abandoned.”

A young woman has gone missing in Silicon Valley and her father has hired Colter Shaw to find her. The son of a survivalist family, Shaw is an expert tracker. Now he makes a living as a “reward seeker,” traveling the country to help police solve crimes and private citizens locate missing persons. But what seems a simple investigation quickly thrusts him into the dark heart of America’s tech hub and the cutthroat billion-dollar video-gaming industry.

“Escape if you can.”

When another victim is kidnapped, the clues point to one video game with a troubled past–The Whispering Man. In that game, the player has to survive after being abandoned in an inhospitable setting with five random objects. Is a madman bringing the game to life? [FF says: Oooh… 😲]

“Or die with dignity.”

Shaw finds himself caught in a cat-and-mouse game, risking his own life to save the victims even as he pursues the kidnapper across both Silicon Valley and the dark ‘net. Encountering eccentric game designers, trigger-happy gamers and ruthless tech titans, he soon learns that he isn’t the only one on the hunt: someone is on his trail and closing fast.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – This edition isn’t out yet in the US but can be pre-ordered here

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

~The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

* * * * *

….Through the window of the bar parlour the short red face of Mr. Clark could be seen peering after the lorry. It carried some country policeman in uniform. As near the pond as it could get, it stopped. The policemen clambered down and hauled out a cumbrous apparatus of iron and rope.
….The Chief Constable strode up to the pond. “It’s not so big, Mr. Fortune. We’ll soon make sure one way or the other.”
….“Yes, yes.” Reggie walked around the bank and measured distances with his eye. “We’re going to make quite sure. They couldn’t throw him further than this. Begin from here and work towards that end.”
….The drags were put in and the constabulary hauled and the black water grew turbid and yellow. The ropes strained. “Got something,” the Chief Constable grunted. “Go steady, lads.” Out of the depths of the pond into the shallows came a shapeless mass of cloth. Policemen splashed in and lifted on to the bank something that had been a man.

~The Football Photograph by HC Bailey, in Settling Scores

* * * * *

….“We want a cheap loaf, cheap bread and provisions cheaper!”
….From the back came a song, quiet at first then louder as we all joined in.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.

….All of us singing. I hadn’t known the words before I went in, but they were fixed pretty straight by the time I came out.
….I crossed the street, humming the tune and the thought of a good roast goose dinner in my head. I’d have it with sausages or a thick slice of bacon. I didn’t mind. Bacon. My tummy near collapsed at the thought. And peas. All the peas I could eat.
….It was punishing to think of.
….All the singing in the world couldn’t hide a thing. I was hard hungry. And I was no nearer to being fed.

~The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

* * * * *

….When he writes of the siege of St Andrews Castle Knox can be pacily exciting, but here his tone is warmly hagiographical. He dramatizes Wishart’s words effortlessly. Knox’s plain prose is quickened by biblical phrasings, spiced by local and temporal details like the dyke at the edge of the moor and the pleasant sunshine. In such vignettes Knox writes like a proto-novelist. His wish to manipulate history seems to prepare the soil for the historical novel which would take strong root in Scotland centuries later in the age of Walter Scott. Elsewhere, as Knox delights in flourishing long transcripts of his own arguments and speeches, the reader is soon wearied by his hectoring egotism and realizes that for this man a three-hour sermon might have been on the short side.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

* * * * *

….At last we were at the cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshall and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes – the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment, I believe that he had not realised that the king was in very truth come to Strelsau.

~The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

* * * * *

So… are you tempted?

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Variation on a theme…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of her boyfriend, Hannah’s life is spiralling out of control. She’s behaving recklessly and drinking too much, and her friends and family are getting very tired of her. So when she receives a reminder about a booking she and her boyfriend had made to stay for a few nights in a guest-house in Ireland, she decides to go. But as soon as she arrives spooky things begins to happen, while bad weather and storms means she and her fellow guests find themselves cut off from the outside world. And then the deaths begin…

There seems to be a little trend of books at the moment taking the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a group of people carefully collected together in an isolated spot by someone with a grievance who then sets about bumping them off one by one. It’s certainly an excellent set-up and the trick is to do something original within the overall structure so that it doesn’t just seem like a copy of the great original. Frost’s basic story isn’t particularly original – after all these years of psychological thrillers it would be hard to find an angle that no one else had used – but she handles it well and uses the general spookiness of the house to good effect to create an atmosphere of enjoyable tension.

I must admit I groaned a bit at the beginning. A few years ago I got so fed up with the identikit misery-fest thriller sub-genre that I wrote a joking pastiche of it, involving a hungover alcoholic woman whose family and friends all hated her and whose life was a mess because of something unspecified that happened “that day” in the past. The first several pages of this book read almost like a pastiche of my pastiche, up to and including the obligatory drunken vomiting scene. Happily, while it continues to tread fairly well-worn ground throughout, Frost writes well (and in past tense – hurrah!), and makes the excellent decision to remove the opportunity for getting drunk from Hannah as soon as she arrives at the guest-house. Once she sobers up, she becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable lead character – a lesson all drunks, fictional or otherwise, could learn from!

Abbie Frost

The underlying story is dark and again perhaps too well-trodden to really surprise, but although I guessed parts of the plot and saw some of the twists coming, it’s done well and, once the rather slow start is out of the way, the pacing picks up so that it becomes a page-turner. The characterisation is a bit patchy – some of the characters are very well done, others less so, but happily I lost my initial antipathy to Hannah herself and gradually found myself on her side.

It’s not one to think too hard about or to analyse too deeply. There are, perhaps, too many bits that require a hefty suspension of disbelief. But the pacing and spookiness make it an entertaining read overall and it all culminates in an exciting and nicely over-the-top thriller ending. Once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot, finding myself reluctant to put it down, which is exactly the effect a good thriller should have.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Double the pleasure…

Every now and then the British Library produces a twofer in their Crime Classics series – two full-length novels by the same author in one volume – and these always feel like an extra special treat, especially when the author is one of the ones who has become a readers’ favourite, as John Bude apparently has. I must admit, although I’ve enjoyed the previous Bude novels I’ve read, he hadn’t become one of my personal stars, but I hoped maybe these two would raise him up to that status. And they did! I loved both of these very different novels…

Death in White Pyjamas

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having made his fortune in business, Sam Richardson is now enjoying his middle years by using his wealth to support a small theatre company, led by director Basil Barnes. Barnes’ artistic drive and Richardson’s knowledge of the type of thing he himself likes to see performed on stage make for a winning combination, and Richardson’s wealth allows Basil to hire a core group of established actors and actresses along with a few promising newcomers. In the winter months they perform in the London theatre Richardson has bought, and during the summer closed-season he throws open his country home to any of the regulars who need a little break or for the group to gather for early rehearsals of the next season’s plays. This summer most of the company are staying at Richardson’s house, while Basil has bought a little cottage close by and is in the process of fitting it out to his own taste. However, as in any group, there are tensions and jealousies under the surface, and murder is waiting in the wings…

This is one of these mysteries where we slowly get to know all the characters and possible motives before the crime is committed, so my advice is – don’t read the blurb on the back or the introduction until after you’ve read the book! Half the fun is seeing all the convoluted threads that seem to give each of the characters reasons to want rid of one or more of the other ones, and the identity of the eventual victim is not at all clear until the murder actually happens. It almost gives two mysteries – the first, who will be killed, revealed around halfway through, and then the second, who is the killer?

The characterisation is great. There are all the theatrical stereotypes – the old character actor, the beautiful young ingénue, the aspiring playwright, the predatory director, the money-minded producer – but they’re all brought beautifully to life with a lot of warmth and humour, so that they don’t feel at all stale. Once the victim is known, the whodunit is reasonably easy to guess, but the howdunit aspect is great fun, and as with the best vintage crime there are happy endings for those who deserve them and justice for those who don’t. Excellent!

Death Knows No Calendar

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his old friend Lydia Arundel is found dead in her locked artist’s studio with a gun close at hand, Major Tom Boddy finds he can’t believe that she was the type of woman to ever contemplate suicide. So he sets out to investigate, armed only with his extensive knowledge of detective fiction and ably assisted by his batman, Syd Gammon. Although he has his suspicions from an early stage, he soon realises there are several people with the motive to do away with Lydia, a woman whom men fell in love with too easily, and who enjoyed her power over them too much. But even if he works out whodunit, he knows he’ll never be able to persuade the police that she was murdered unless he can solve the mystery of how the crime was done…

There’s more than one “impossible” scenario hidden in this gem of a book, which will please fans of the locked room style of mystery. But for me the greatest joy is in Major Boddy’s character – he’s one of these traditional old colonials who is scared of nothing and assumes nothing is beyond him. When he sets his mind to a task, he sees it through. But he’s also kind-hearted and, typical of the fictional type, gives the impression of being rather baffled by human behaviour, especially of the female variety. There’s so much humour in this book – I smiled and chuckled my way through it. As well as the locked room aspect, the setting is another much-loved vintage crime staple – the small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, or think they do at least. As in Death in White Pyjamas, the identity of the killer is easier to work out than the method of the crime, and in this one the amateur detection efforts of the Major and Syd are hugely entertaining. I think I enjoyed it even more than Death in White Pyjamas.

So two great books in one volume – I hereby officially declare myself a John Bude fan and now can’t wait to read more of his stuff. Doubly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 233…

Episode 233

A massive drop of 5 in the TBR since I last posted two weeks ago – down to 208! I’ve been far too busy stockpiling chocolate and cat treats to acquire books! However, now that I have been sentenced to solitary confinement either I’ll be racing through the books on my TBR or I’ll be spending way too much time browsing the bookshelves on Amazon…

Here are a few that will reach the top of the heap soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

An excellent choice, people! Mind you, this whole thing is reminding me of how many seriously tempting books are lingering unread on my TBR so any of the four would have been excellent. The other three contenders all scored pretty evenly in the end, but this one took a clear lead from the beginning and never faltered as it sped towards the finish line.  I plan to read and review it by the end of June. 

The Blurb says: Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

Serena by Ron Rash

Although Serena didn’t win the previous People’s Choice poll, MarinaSofia mentioned that she had a copy in her TBR too, so we decided to read it and co-ordinate our reviews for the week beginning 13th April. Regular commenter Christine (who doesn’t blog… yet) is going to read it too and share her view in the comments. Anyone else who has a copy fishing about, or feels like acquiring one, is more than welcome to join us!

The Blurb says: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. A new anthology from the BL is always a treat and I vastly prefer reading about sport than participating in it! And look! I’m sure that’s Centre Court at Wimbledon on the cover! Plus, I’m always a sucker for the word ‘skulduggery’…

The Blurb says: ‘The detective story is a game between two players, the author… and the reader.’ – Ronald Knox

From the squash court to the golf links, the football pitch to the swimming pool and the race course to the cricket square, no court, grounds, stadium or stand is safe from skulduggery. Entering the arena where sport clashes with crime, this spirited medley of short stories showcases the greatest deadly plays and criminal gambits of the mystery genre.

With contenders by some of the finest writers in the field, including Celia Fremlin, Michael Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell and Leo Bruce, this new anthology offers a ringside view of the darker side of sports and proves that crime, naturally, is a game for all seasons.

* * * * *

Thriller

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another of the little batch of contemporary thrillers and crime novels that HP kindly sent me, with perfect timing as it turns out since I’m not in the mood for heavyweight fiction at the moment. This isn’t one I’d have picked for myself necessarily, but it’s getting great reviews and there’s nothing like a murder or two to make the day seem a little brighter… 😉

The Blurb says: On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favours, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Fictionalised history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Joan Vaux has known Elizabeth of York since childhood, so when Elizabeth becomes Queen to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, it is natural for Joan to become one of her court servants. This is the story of Joan’s life – her rise through the ranks to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her husband’s equal rise to the top ranks of Henry’s circle. Living for periods of time in the Tower of London, Joan has developed a fascination for the ravens who make their home there and for the legend that says that should the ravens ever desert the Tower, its walls will crumble and the monarchy will fall. Over the years Joan will do her best to protect the ravens from those who see them as pests.

I’m no historian, especially of this period, but it seems to me as if Hickson sticks very closely to fact, both in terms of events and in the personalities of the Royals, insofar as their personalities are known at all at this distance. To me, this is not so much historical fiction as fictionalised history. By this I mean that it is a simple recounting of actual events as seen through the eyes of Joan, rather than a fictional story in its own right using the historical background as a setting.

In other words, there is no plot. The blurb speaks of Joan being “privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen” but frankly Elizabeth doesn’t have any deep, dark secrets. “Like the ravens,” the blurb continues, “Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.” Hmm! That rather makes it sounds as if Joan will be involved in the various events of the time, doesn’t it? But she’s not – she merely mentions them in passing as things that happen to other people. The book is well written for the most part and interesting for the credible detail it provides of the life of a lady of the court who sees and hears of the high events of the period without actively participating in or influencing them. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what the blurb would lead one to expect. Personally I was perpetually disappointed that all the action was happening elsewhere – the rebellions, skirmishes, treaties, etc. However that’s a matter of personal preference – I’m always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere.

Yes, they’re still there…

The book is full of anachronistic phrases, like “healthy bottom line”, “cooking the books”, “dress to impress”, and so on – so many of them that I came to think that Hickson had made the decision to do this deliberately rather than accidentally allowing one or two to slip through. I can see that that may be an attempt to make the characters seem more accessible to a modern audience, but for me it simply jarred. I don’t think historical fiction should necessarily be full of thous and thees and mayhaps and verilys, but I find the use of specifically modern phrases simply pulls me out of the period. And I was seriously disappointed at the too frequent glaring grammatical errors, especially since Hickson tells us that she had two editors! Hopefully someone will have picked these up and corrected them before the final version was printed.

Joanna Hickson

Despite this lengthy list of niggles, I still found it quite an enjoyable read overall. It gives an interesting and convincing insight into the life of a lady of the court, juggling marriage and children with the duties of serving the Queen. Joan is lucky that the husband who is chosen for her is someone she comes to love and admire – not passionately, perhaps, but contentedly. All the important events of the time are touched on, such as Perkin Warbeck’s imposture of one of the missing, presumed dead, Princes in the Tower, and we are entertainingly introduced to the child who will later become Henry VIII. The book ends with the marriage of Katherine of Aragorn to the young Prince Arthur, and with a promise in the afterword that Hickson intends to continue Joan’s story in a future book. I’m not sure that I’ll stick with her for that, but that’s mainly because of my preference for novels that take me to the centre of events rather than leaving me on the domestic periphery. However, I think people who are interested in seeing how women of this rank lived at that time will find this an enjoyable and informative read.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

On a different note, dear people, I’ve found that my anxiety level is through the roof at the moment, as I’m sure will also be the case with many of you. I’m finding it almost impossible to read anything that requires concentration and writing reviews of anything other than light books seems to have become a formidable task. So my posting might be erratic for a bit and rather full of vintage crime and comforting re-reads until my system accepts that this is the new normal. To hasten that day, I’m going to stop watching news except for the main evening bulletin on the BBC and I’m swearing off all social media except for the blogosphere for the time being – I’m sure the blanket coverage and conflicting messages are making things worse rather than better. I will also be avoiding blog posts about the pandemic, so apologies in advance for that.

Stay safe, stay as calm as possible under the circumstances, and don’t forget to stockpile chocolate!

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

Knotted locks and knitted socks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bertie isn’t keen on visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, home to Aunt Agatha, the most terrifying of his aunts. But Jeeves is keen to do a spot of fishing and Uncle Percy needs Jeeves’ help in finding a way to pull off a big business deal, so Bertie gives in gracefully. After all, Aunt Agatha is off elsewhere on a visit, ex-fiancée Florence Craye can be no threat to his bachelorhood now that she’s engaged to D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and while his young cousin Edwin is always a pestilence, how much harm could one Boy Scout possibly do? But when Florence and Stilton fall out over Stilton’s insistence on being the village policeman and Edwin burns down Bertie’s cottage whilst doing his daily act of kindness, things take a sinister turn. Meantime Uncle Percy is refusing to allow his ward Nobby Hopwood to marry the light of her life, Boko Fittleworth. Even for Jeeves, it will be a tall order to set everything right…

….Florence was obviously in the grip of some powerful emotion. She quivered gently, as if in the early stages of palsy, and her face, as far as I could gather from the sketchy view I was able to obtain of it, was pale and set, like the white of a hard-boiled egg.
….“D’Arcy Cheesewright,” she said, getting right off the mark without so much as a preliminary ‘What ho, there’, “is an obstinate, mulish, pig-headed, overbearing, unimaginative, tyrannical jack-in-office!”
….Her words froze me to the core. I was conscious of a sense of frightful peril. Owing to young Edwin’s infernal officiousness, this pancake had been in receipt only a few hours earlier of a handsome diamond brooch, ostensibly a present from Bertram W., and now, right on top of it, she had had a falling out with Stilton, so substantial that it took her six distinct adjectives to describe him. When a girl uses six derogatory adjectives in her attempt to paint the portrait of the loved one, it means something. One may indicate a merely temporary tiff. Six is big stuff.

All the Jeeves and Wooster books have fundamentally the same plot, which is part of their charm but doesn’t make it easy to find new things to say in reviews! This is a particular favourite of mine, partly because I like Florence as one of Bertie’s recurring girlfriends – she’s not as drippy as Madeline nor as haughty as Honoria, and I often felt she would have been a serious contender in the matrimonial stakes had it not been for her desire to improve poor Bertie’s mind by forcing him to read highbrow literature. Bertie, as we know, prefers to relax with the latest murder mystery. Edwin and his acts of kindness bring trauma and despair to all his unwilling victims and much hilarity to the reader.

….“Oh, hullo, Bertie” he said, grinning all over his loathsome face.
….“Hullo, you frightful young squirt,” I responded civilly. “What are you doing here?”
….“Tidying up.”
….I touched on a point of absorbing interest.
….“Was it you who left that bally pail there?”
….“Where?”
….“In the middle of the hall.”
….“Coo! Yes, I remember now. I put it there to be out of the way.”
….“I see. Well, you’ll be amused to learn that I’ve nearly broken my leg.”
….He started. A fanatic gleam came into his eyes. He looked like a boy confronted with an unexpected saucer of ice cream.
….“I say! Have you really? This is a bit of bunce. I can give you first aid.”

The other thing I love is that this is the one in which Shakespeare’s fretful porpentine is a running joke. Some of you may have been fooled by my occasional use of quotes from Shakespeare, the great poets and even the Bible into thinking I am widely read and deeply intellectual. Not so! Almost every quote I know came to me via Bertie Wooster, and I’m pretty sure the fretful porpentine and I first met here…

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books. His Bertie is Bertie, and he’s brilliant at creating appropriate voices and personas for the whole cast of characters. In this one, there’s a fabulous scene where Uncle Percy gets riotously drunk and Cecil’s performance had me chuckling and guffawing all the way through. If you need a bit of joy in the morning, the evening or any other time, I heartily recommend this and the other Jeeves audiobooks. Forget the pasta and toilet roll – stockpile these in preparation for your social distancing. What better company could you possibly have?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 232 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 232

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month or so, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

OK, are we all ready for the next batch of four? Leaping ahead by a whole year, these are all books that I added to my TBR in 2013/4, so it’s about time I read one of them, eh? I will read and review this month’s winner by the end of June.

Are you ready? Then put on your flippers, adjust your snorkel and dive in…

Crime

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Added 4th January 2013. 3,879 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.66 average rating. 449 pages.

The Blurb says: Rose Janko is missing. It has been seven years since she disappeared, and nobody said a word. Now, following the death of his wife, her father Leon feels compelled to find her. Rumour had it she ran off when her baby boy was born with the family’s genetic disorder. Leon is not so sure. He wants to know the truth and he hires a private investigator to discover it – Ray Lovell. Ray starts to delve deeper, but his investigation is hampered by the very people who ought to be helping him – the Jankos. He cannot understand their reluctance to help. Why don’t they want to find Rose Janko?

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Added 5th June 2013. 10,890 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.23 average. 460 pages.

The Blurb says: Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love. 

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Fiction Short Stories

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Added 20th December 2013. 5,277 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.35 average. 353 pages.

The Blurb says: Welcome to Kittur, India. It’s on India’s southwestern coast, bounded by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Kaliamma River to the south and east. It’s blessed with rich soil and scenic beauty, and it’s been around for centuries. Of its 193,432 residents, only 89 declare themselves to be without religion or caste. And if the characters in Between the Assassinations are any indication, Kittur is an extraordinary crossroads of the brightest minds and the poorest morals, the up-and-coming and the downtrodden, and the poets and the prophets of an India that modern literature has rarely addressed.

A blinding, brilliant, and brave mosaic of Indian life as it is lived in a place called Kittur, Between the Assassinations, with all the humour, sympathy, and unflinching candour of The White Tiger, enlarges our understanding of the world we live in today.

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Crime

Frozen Out by Quentin Bates

Added 1st January 2014. 1,943 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.60 average. 337 pages. 

The Blurb says: The discovery of a corpse washed up on a beach in an Icelandic backwater sparks a series of events that propels the village of Hvalvik’s police sergeant Gunnhildur into deep waters.

Although under pressure to deal with the matter quickly, she is suspicious that the man’s death was no accident and once she has identified the body, sets about investigating his final hours.The case takes Gunnhildur away from her village and into a cosmopolitan world of shady deals, government corruption and violence. She finds herself alone and less than welcome in this hostile environment as she tries to find out who it was that made sure the young man drowned on a dark night one hundred kilometres from where he should have been – and why.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

 

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

A Killing Kindness (Dalziel and Pascoe 6) by Reginald Hill

To thine own self be true…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Sergeant Wield visits the mother of murder victim Brenda Sorby, he finds that Mrs Sorby has called in gypsy clairvoyant Rosetta Stanhope to try to contact her dead daughter. Politely, Wield listens in, but when the local press get hold of the story it is blown up as the police having called in a psychic because they’re baffled, and Superintendent Dalziel is not pleased! The press have a point, though – Brenda is the third apparent victim of the murderer the press have dubbed the Choker and the police are indeed baffled. There seems no obvious connection between the victims, and while the first two were carefully laid out by the murderer, poor Brenda was found dumped in the local canal. However, all three women were strangled, and after each murder the local paper received an anonymous phonecall quoting a line from Hamlet. Then, as Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield search for leads, a fourth murder takes place…

The thing I love about this series is how it evolves over time, both in terms of the recurring characters, and in the quality of the plotting. This one dates from 1980, a full decade after the first book and a decade that saw the beginning of lots of changes in social attitudes. Hill could have simply changed the characters of his two leads as many writers tried to do with varying degrees of success. But instead he allows them to grow and adapt. At this point, Dalziel remains the rude, boorish, foul-mouthed dinosaur, but Pascoe, now married to the feminist Ellie, has matured into a semi-decent bloke, who might still expect his dinner to be on the table when he gets home but isn’t too put out when it’s left for him in the oven instead, while Ellie is off out with her feminist friends. For the early ‘80s, this almost counted as being a New Man! Even Dalziel will gradually reveal that most of his boorishness is an act and that he might be even more advanced than Pascoe in his heart. Dalziel doesn’t care if his officers are male or female, gay or straight, white or black – he’s equally rude and offensive to them all, but they can count on his total support should anyone else try to mess with them.

Having brought Ellie in a few books earlier to counterbalance the sexism and boost the feminist angle, in this one Hill brings Wieldy to the fore. I can’t say definitively that Wield is the first sympathetic depiction of a gay policeman in mainstream British crime fiction, but he’s certainly the first I came across and it was pretty astounding at the time. Especially since the portrayal of him is so good – not in any way stereotyped, not suggesting that being gay makes him weak or feminine or “perverted” or any of the other negative characteristics that fictional gay people were so often given at that period. Wield is a normal guy who happens to be gay. For younger people used to that kind of portrayal of gay people, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary it seemed back in the day. And the joy is that Wieldy is so easy to like! Again, I have no evidence that Wield changed perceptions of homosexuality in Hill’s readership but I’d be amazed if he didn’t. He’s one example of the way Hill constantly pushed at the boundaries, but subtly and with warmth and humour, rather than beating the reader over the head with polemics and “messages”.

Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is excellent – probably the first in the series where I felt Hill got it completely right. It’s complex and convincing, and dark. While it involves the murder of young women, it avoids the salaciousness and voyeurism that often accompanies that, and the killer’s motivation is original. I’m desperately trying to avoid anything which could be a spoiler, so I’ll simply say that the motivation aspect gives the book the psychological depth that became a trademark of Hill’s work as the series developed. That’s what makes Dalziel and Pascoe such a good team – Dalziel knows how to bully evidence out of the unwilling, but Pascoe knows how to use empathy and understanding to tease out the reason for the crimes.

When I first read this series, it was around this book that I first joined in and I must say I’d recommend it as a good starting point to people coming to the series fresh. While all the books are readable, there’s no doubt the very early ones feel a little dated now, and not as polished, whereas this one stands up very well to modern eyes, I think. I found that I was more forgiving of the sexism in the earlier ones when I backtracked to them after learning to love the characters once they had become more developed, and from this point on the series just gets better and better. There are twenty-four of them in total, so if you haven’t already read them, you really ought to make a start soon – they get my highest recommendation!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“We are deciding which gowns and kirtles to take to Greenwich next week, my lord,” Elizabeth explained to her husband. “I have so many new ones and Lady Verney is kindly modelling them for me so that I can see how they look.” She nodded at Eleanor to carry on and the king watched attentively as the model demonstrated an elegant green brocade gown, showing how the skirt flowed behind her as she walked, and the full marten-trimmed pink sleeves, tied with silver laces, were draped from the elbow to show the tight cream-embroidered linen sleeves of the kirtle beneath. His obvious interest led me to surmise that the world of female fashion was something of a mystery to him.

~The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

* * * * *

….Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

~Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

* * * * *

….Walking back to the door, avoiding the broken floorboards, she realised something else had been bothering her all this time. And now she knew what it was: that smell from her dream last night, it was in here too.
….The room spun and suddenly all she could smell was that cloying stink, She needed to get out, needed fresh air.
….She waited, listening for anyone outside in the corridor, because she didn’t want them to find her here.
….When she turned the handle, it wobbled but the door didn’t move. She tried again, this time putting her weight behind it.
….The latch. The fucking latch. Why had she let it close behind her?
….She wrenched at the door handle, twisted and turned it, pushed and pulled. Come on, come on. Rattled and shook it. Move.
….At last the handle began to shift and she pushed down harder, shifted her weight backwards. And the handle came off in her hand.

~The Guest House by Abbie Frost

* * * * *

….He pretended to notice Wield for the first time, went close to him and put his mouth next to his ear.
….“Ah, Sergeant Wield,” he murmured. “Any messages for me?”
….“No, sir,” said Wield. “Not that I know of.”
….“Not even from the other bloody side!” bellowed Dalziel. He looked as if he was about to thump the sergeant with the paper.
….“It’s all a mistake, sir,” interposed Pascoe hastily.
….“Mistake? Certainly it’s a bloody mistake. I go down to Birmingham for a conference. Hello Andy, they all say. How’s that Choker of yours? they all say. Fine, I say. All under control, I say. That was the bloody mistake! You know what it says here in this rag?”
….He unfolded the paper with some difficulty.
….“It has long been common practice among American police forces to call on the aid of clairvoyants when they are baffled,” he read. “I leave a normal English CID unit doing its job. I come back and suddenly it’s the Mid-Yorkshire precinct and we’re baffled! No wonder Kojak’s bald.”
….Pascoe risked a smile. Lots of things made Dalziel angry. Not having his jokes appreciated was one of them.

~A Killing Kindness by Reginald Hill

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From the Archives:

….A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.

~Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

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So… are you tempted?

Six Degrees of Separation – From Treloar to…

Chain links…

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

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Haven’t read this one but here’s what the blurb tells us…

For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

It has glowing reviews, but I don’t think it’s one for me. Ignoring the pesky ‘e’, I’m jumping to another title with a wild creature in it…

The Lion Wakes by Robert Low. Set in the turbulent period of Scottish history of Wallace and Bruce, this book gives an unvarnished and unromanticised picture of the still almost barbarian life in Scotland then. No great patriots here, fighting for independence. The picture instead is of a group of scheming aristocrats, plotting how best to gain more land and wealth for themselves, and willing to destroy both the land and the common people to achieve their ends. I thoroughly enjoyed this claymore-and-kilt adventure, especially since it has a lot of excellent Scottish dialect.

And following a theme, on to another with a wild creature in the title…

Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell. When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. Earl offers two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada, jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage citizens as more than a comic-book threat. A great book from one of my newest favourite authors.

Next in this month’s menagerie…

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that the elephant Solomon would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna. Not much depth to this one, but it’s quite entertaining…

Not sure which of these counts as the wildest – man or beast…

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. Great fun – full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama!

One of my many grievances with the next one is that it takes 93% of the book before we finally catch sight of the eponymous creature of the wild ocean…

Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Off we go, searching for that pesky whale through every ocean, sea and puddle in the world, talking cod Shakespearian and fantasising about the sensual aspects of whale blubber! Gosh, I enjoyed dreading this book, then hating it and writing a scathing review – not to mention the fun I had pastiching it! I miss that old monster of the deep…

And back to the jungle for my last wild beast…

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness.

* * * * *

So Treloar to Choo, via wolves, lions, eagles, elephants, apes, whales and tigers!

Hope you enjoyed the safari. 😀

Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 231…

Episode 231

I seem to be in  major reading slump this week and not one of the 213 (up one) books on the TBR is calling my name! I can only hope the postman has gone on holiday and doesn’t visit till I get back in the swing…

Here are a few that hopefully will tempt me soon…

Lit-Crit

Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

I bought this ages ago in one of my periodic fits of feeling I ought to know my own literary heritage better. I assumed, wrongly, that it would be one of these list-style books, like 1001 Books Before You Die, etc. It turned out to be a hefty tome full of essays on various aspects of Scottish literature. Not what I was looking for at the time, so it has lain neglected on my shelves ever since. Time to bite the bullet and see if I can struggle through it… and maybe even learn something! 

The Blurb says: From Treasure Island to Trainspotting, Scotland’s rich literary tradition has influenced writing across centuries and cultures far beyond its borders. Here, for the first time, is a single volume presenting the glories of fifteen centuries of Scottish literature.

In Scotland’s Books poet Robert Crawford tells the story of Scottish writing and its relationship to the country’s history. Stretching from the medieval masterpiece of St Columba’s Iona – the earliest surviving Scottish work – to the imaginative, thriving world of twenty-first-century writing with authors such as Ali Smith and James Kelman, this outstanding collection traces the development of literature in Scotland and explores the cultural, linguistic and literary heritage of the nation. It includes extracts from the writing discussed to give a flavour of the original work, full quotations in their own language, previously unpublished works by authors and plenty of new research. Informative and readable, this is the definitive guide to the marvellous legacy of Scottish literature.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. This one caught my eye because I’ve just finished reading a history of the Yorks, so for once I actually know who Elizabeth of York is! Better read it quick before I forget again… 

The Blurb says: Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.

Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.

Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the whispering walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.

* * * * *

Adventure

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. When I saw they were bringing out a new edition of this adventure story, I couldn’t resist! Who doesn’t need a bit of swashbuckling in their lives every now and then? Doesn’t it sound like fun?

The Blurb says: ‘If love were the only thing, I would follow you-in rags if need be … But is love the only thing?’

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda is a swashbuckling adventure set in Ruritania, a mythical pocket kingdom. Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll closely resembles the King of Ruritania, and to foil a coup by his rival to the throne, he is persuaded to impersonate him for a day. However, Rassendyll’s role becomes more complicated when the real king is kidnapped, and he falls for the lovely Princess Flavia. Although the story is set in the near past, Ruritania is a semi-feudal land in which a strong sword arm can carry the day, and Rassendyll and his allies fight to rescue the king. But if he succeeds, our hero and Flavia will have to choose between love and honour.

As Nicholas Daly’s introduction outlines, this thrilling tale inspired not only stage and screen adaptations, but also place names, and even a popular board game. A whole new subgenre of ‘Ruritanian romances’ followed, though no imitation managed to capture the charm, exuberance, and sheer storytelling power of Hope’s classic tale.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I loved Graham Greene when I was young, but have been rather disappointed by a couple of his books I’ve read recently. This has left me scared to revisit the ones I adored. This is one I’ve never read before and is considered one of his best, so fingers crossed it will revive my love. It’s narrated by Samuel West.

The Blurb says: A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, he is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold. Greene’s gripping thriller, exposes a world of loneliness and fear, of life lived on the ‘dangerous edge of things’.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

Book 62 of 90

The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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