FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Factual

The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The fox stopped. Without turning, he said in a husky whisper:
….“I am renouncing the world, dear Sister. I have forsworn the consumption of chicken. From now on my diet will consist of nothing but plants and herbs.”
….The hen was astounded. She said:
….“Are you calling me Sister? Why, you are my worst enemy!”
….“We are all brothers and sisters. We are one family,” said the fox. “What I wish for now is to live in peace and quiet. I am going on the pilgrimage, on the Hajj, Sister. But don’t tell anyone.”
….The hen said:
….“Going on the Hajj? I beg you, take me with you. I won’t tell a soul.”
….He said:
….“I’ll take you with me on one condition: that you keep your distance. Don’t walk too close to me. I don’t want anyone who sees us to think I am planning to eat you up.”

From: Abu Ali the Fox (you just know it’s not going to end well for the hen, don’t you?)

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….Clarke unfolded the two-page letter, which was dated March 31, and saw that it was indeed from Kubrick. Fairly brief, quite to the point, it seemingly had two clear agendas. One was picking his brain about a possible telescope purchase (the director mentioned a Questar telescope in the first and last sentences). The other was his desire to discuss “the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” This line – the second after the Questar bit – would become well known, and certainly served as the initial aim of the nascent project Kubrick was proposing.
….“My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character,” Kubrick wrote. “1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. 2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future. 3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

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.He held a white cloth – it was a serviette he had brought with him – over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason for his muffled voice. But it was not that which startled Mrs. Hall, It was the fact that all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose. It was bright, pink, and shiny just as it had been at first. He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high, black, linen-lined collar turned up about his neck. The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable. This muffled and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

* * * * * * * * *

….There was a noise.
….She couldn’t identify quite what or where it was, but it sounded like somebody trying not to make a sound.
….Somebody in the house.
….Catherine’s neck prickled with ancient warning.
….She was thirty-one and had lived alone all her adult life until she’d moved in with Adam nearly two years before. When you lived alone, and you heard a noise in the night, you didn’t cower under the bedclothes and wait for your fate to saunter up the stairs and down the hallway. When you lived alone, you got up and grabbed the torch, the bat, the hairspray, and you sneaked downstairs to confront…
….The dishwasher.
….Which was the only thing that had ever made a noise loud enough to wake her.
….But she hadn’t set the dishwasher…

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….Yesterday, walking around the places in central Bogotá where some of the events that I’m going to explore in this report happened, trying to make sure once more that nothing has escaped me in its painstaking reconstruction, I found myself wondering aloud how I’ve come to know these things I might be better off not knowing: how had I come to spend so much time thinking about these dead people, living with them, talking to them, listening to their regrets and regretting, in turn, not being able to do anything to alleviate their suffering. And I was astonished that it had all started with a few casual words, casually spoken by Dr Benavides inviting me to his house. At that moment, I thought I was accepting in order not to deny someone my time who had been generous with his own at a difficult moment, so the visit would simply be one more commitment out of the many insignificant things that use up our lives. I couldn’t know how mistaken I’d been, for what happened that night put in motion a frightful mechanism that would only end with this book: this book written in atonement for crimes that, although I did not commit them, I have ended up inheriting. 

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So…are you tempted?

The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Mr Bedford’s financial difficulties become pressing, he leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside to write a play which he is sure will win him fame and fortune, despite him never having written anything before. Instead, he meets his new neighbour Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

….I do not remember before that night thinking at all of the risks we were running. Now they came like that array of spectres that once beleaguered Prague, and camped around me. The strangeness of what we were about to do, the unearthliness of it, overwhelmed me. I was like a man awakened out of pleasant dreams to the most horrible surroundings. I lay, eyes wide open, and the sphere seemed to get more flimsy and feeble, and Cavor more unreal and fantastic, and the whole enterprise madder and madder every moment.
….I got out of bed and wandered about. I sat at the window and stared at the immensity of space. Between the stars was the void, the unfathomable darkness!

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying revisiting some of the HG Wells stories I enjoyed in my youth, and reading for the first time the ones I missed back then. As with the others, I read the Oxford World’s Classics version, which has the usual informative and enjoyable introduction, this time from Simon J James, Professor of Victorian Literature and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which sets the book in its historical and literary context. This is one I hadn’t read before and perhaps it’s fair to say it’s one of the less well known ones, though only in comparison to the universal fame of some of the others, like The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. While I think it hasn’t got quite the depth of those, it’s at least as enjoyable, if not more so.

Mostly this is because of the characterisation and the interplay between the two men, which give the book a lot of humour. Bedford, our narrator, is rather a selfish cad without too much going on in the way of ethics or heroism, but I found him impossible to dislike. He’s so honest about his own personality, not apologising for it, but not hypocritically trying to make himself seem like anything other than what he is – someone who’s out for what he can get. Cavor also has some issues with ethics, though in his case it’s not about greed. He’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.

….“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. “It’s the very Devil. The mediæval priests and persecutors were right and the Moderns are all wrong. You tamper with it—and it offers you gifts. And directly you take them it knocks you to pieces in some unexpected way. Old passions and new weapons—now it upsets your religion, now it upsets your social ideas, now it whirls you off to desolation and misery!”

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily two, in this case. Firstly, through Cavor’s invention of Cavorite (the name gives an indication of Cavor’s desire for glory, I feel!), Wells looks at the huge leaps that were being made in the fields of science and technology and issues a warning that, while these promise great progress for mankind, they also threaten potential catastrophe if the science isn’t tempered by ethical controls. Secondly, through the race of beings that Cavor and Bedford find when they arrive on the moon, Wells speculates on a form of society so utopian in its social control that it becomes positively terrifying! He uses this society, though, as a vehicle to comment on the less than utopian situation back on Earth, though I couldn’t help feeling he frequently had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek as he did so.

….The stuff was not unlike a terrestrial mushroom, only it was much laxer in texture, and, as one swallowed it, it warmed the throat. At first we experienced a mere mechanical satisfaction in eating; then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds.
….“It’s good,” said I. “Infernally good! What a home for our surplus population! Our poor surplus population,” and I broke off another large portion.

But the themes are treated more lightly in this one, and Wells allows his imagination free rein. One of the things I enjoyed most was how he includes a lot of realistic science even as he creates an impossible substance in Cavorite and an equally impossible race of moon-beings, the Selenites. Of course we’ve all looked down on Earth from planes now, but Wells imagines how it would look from space. He describes convincingly how to control a sphere covered in Cavorite by using gravity and the slingshot effect of planetary mass. He describes the weightlessness of zero gravity brilliantly, many decades before anyone had experienced it. His Selenites are a vision of evolved insect life, which frankly gave me the shivers, especially when he describes how they are bred, reared and surgically altered to happily fulfil a single function in life – a kind of precursor of the humans in Brave New World but with insect faces and arms!

I won’t give spoilers as to what happens to the men, but the ending gives a minor commentary on one of Wells’ other recurring themes – man’s tendency to look on other people’s territory as fair game for invasion and colonisation. But since you’re now thinking – but wait! That IS a spoiler! I assure you it’s really not, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why it’s not. Or you could just read it because it’s a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement. What are you waiting for? Jump aboard the Cavorite sphere – you don’t get the chance to go to the Moon every day of the week!

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

Book 25 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 155…

Episode 155…

The steady decline in the TBR has stalled temporarily. It’s jumped up 1 to 218, but I’m sure it will fall again soon…

Here are a few more that should drop off soon…

History

Courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I found Nancy Goldstone’s earlier book The Rival Queens a highly readable and entertaining history, so I’m hoping for more of the same with this one, especially since I know nothing about any of these royal ladies…

The Blurb says: In a sweeping narrative encompassing political intrigue, illicit love affairs and even a murder mystery, Nancy Goldstone tells the riveting story of a queen who lost her throne, and of her four defiant daughters.

Elizabeth Stuart’s (1596-1662) marriage to a German count far below her rank was arranged with the understanding that her father, James I of England, would help his new son-in-law achieve the crown of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this promise would ruin ‘the Winter Queen’, as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved and launch a war that would last thirty years.

Forced into exile, the Winter Queen found refuge for her growing family in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age formed the backdrop to her daughters’ education. The eldest, Princess Elizabeth (1618-80), counted the philosopher René Descartes as her closest friend. Louisa (1622-1709), whose lively manner would provoke heartache and scandal, was a gifted artist. Henrietta Maria (1626-51), the beauty of the family, would achieve the dynastic ambition of marrying into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia (1630-1714), a heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen, with a ready wit and strength of character, who would fulfil the promise of her great-grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, a legacy which endures to this day.

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Science Fiction

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Last of the five HG Wells science fiction blockbusters in the OWC catalogue, this is another I have never read before. If it’s halfway as good as the other four, I’m in for a treat…

The Blurb says: One night in the depths of winter, a bizarre and sinister stranger wrapped in bandages and eccentric clothing arrives in a remote English village. His peculiar, secretive activities in the room he rents spook the locals. Speculation about his identity becomes horror and disbelief when the villagers discover that, beneath his disguise, he is invisible.

Griffin, as the man is called, is an embittered scientist who is determined to exploit his extraordinary gifts, developed in the course of brutal self-experimentation, in order to conduct a Reign of Terror on the sleepy inhabitants of England. As the police close in on him, he becomes ever more desperate and violent.

In this pioneering novella, subtitled “A Grotesque Romance”, Wells combines comedy, both farcical and satirical, and tragedy–to superbly unsettling effect. Since its publication in 1897, The Invisible Man has haunted not only popular culture (in particular cinema) but also the greatest and most experimental novels of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

The last scheduled book for my Russian Revolution Challenge. I freely admit my enthusiasm for this one has worn off considerably, purely because I feel I’ve reached a surfeit of massive descriptions of the Revolution now. However, it is considered to be a great classic, so I’ll have a go, and if I can’t take it, it can go back on the shelf for a couple of years till I get back in the mood…

The Blurb says: The epic novel of love, war and revolution from Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

An extraordinary Russian masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don follows the turbulent fortunes of the Cossack people through peace, war and revolution – among them the proud and rebellious Gregor Melekhov, who struggles to be with the woman he loves as his country is torn apart. Borne of Mikhail Sholokhov’s own early life in the lands of the Cossacks by the river Don, it is a searing portrait of a nation swept up in conflict, with all the tragic choices it brings.

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Crime

The constant drip, drip, drip of blog reviews praising Ann Cleeves has finally worn me down, so it’s time to pluck this one from where it’s been hiding for three years in the depths of the TBR and shove it onto the top of the pile…

The Blurb says: Raven Black is the first book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series – filmed as the major BBC1 drama starring Douglas Henshall, Shetland.

It is a cold January morning and Shetland lies buried beneath a deep layer of snow. Trudging home, Fran Hunter’s eye is drawn to a vivid splash of colour on the white ground, ravens circling above. It is the strangled body of her teenage neighbour Catherine Ross. As Fran opens her mouth to scream, the ravens continue their deadly dance . . .

The locals on the quiet island stubbornly focus their gaze on one man – loner and simpleton Magnus Tait. But when police insist on opening out the investigation a veil of suspicion and fear is thrown over the entire community. For the first time in years, Catherine’s neighbours nervously lock their doors, whilst a killer lives on in their midst.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….After another short rest, Curtis finally made it to the third floor. It hadn’t been easy, but he was fifteen – old enough to get all the way to the top if he’d wanted to. He finally reached the beam he’d been dreaming of sitting on – perched like a bird over the city street below. When he got to the beam, he slowly straightened up and prepared to walk to the end of it. He knew he could do it: all it took was concentration. Foot in front of foot. He focused carefully and started moving. Then he heard it again – that same noise he’d heard earlier. He stopped for a moment but didn’t hear anything. Still, he couldn’t help feeling like someone was watching him.
….All of a sudden, the world spun out of control as Curtis felt a hard push from behind and lost his balance. He scrabbled frantically to grab something – anything – to keep him from falling…

* * * * * * * * *

….Seated with Stuart and Brent Tarleton in the cool shade of the porch of Tara, her father’s plantation, that bright April afternoon of 1861, she made a pretty picture. Her new green flowered-muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops and exactly matched the flat-heeled green morocco slippers her father had recently brought her from Atlanta. The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, wilful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by her mother’s gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own.

* * * * * * * * *

….It would be easy to blame the Chernobyl accident on the failed communist system and the design flaws of Chernobyl-type reactors, implying that those problems belong to the past. But this confidence would be misplaced. The causes of the Chernobyl meltdown are very much in evidence today. Authoritarian rulers pursuing enhanced or great-power status – and eager to accelerate economic development and overcome energy and demographic crises, while paying lip service to ecological concerns – are more in evidence now than they were in 1986. Could the nuclear Armageddon called Chernobyl repeat itself? No one knows the answer to this question. But there is no doubt that a new Chernobyl-type disaster is more likely to happen if we do not learn the lessons of the one that has already occurred.

* * * * * * * * *

….So we two poor terrestrial castaways, lost in that wild-growing moon jungle, crawled in terror before the sounds that had come upon us. We crawled, as it seemed, a long time before we saw either Selenite or mooncalf, though we heard the bellowing and gruntulous noises of these latter continually drawing nearer to us. We crawled through stony ravines, over snow slopes, amidst fungi that ripped like thin bladders at our thrust, emitting a watery humour, over a perfect pavement of things like puff-balls, and beneath interminable thickets of scrub. And ever more helplessly our eyes sought for our abandoned sphere. The noise of the mooncalves would at times be a vast flat calf-like sound, at times it rose to an amazed and wrathy bellowing, and again it would become a clogged bestial sound, as though these unseen creatures had sought to eat and bellow at the same time.

* * * * * * * * *

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

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

…aka Whaaaaaaaaaaaaatttt??????

The Classics Club Spin has spun and the result is…

No. 3

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

*stomps off, muttering curses*

* * * * *

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

Factual

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

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

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

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

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

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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I have only one other thing to say…

HUH!!!

😡

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The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 142… on Tuesday!

Episode 142…

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

So here they are…

Magical Crime

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

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

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

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

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Classic sci-fi

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

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

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

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

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Gorgeously Factual

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

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

* * * * *

Award-winning Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

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

Book 8 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

Listen, nations! The revolution offers you peace. It will be accused of violating treaties. But of this it is proud. To break up the leagues of bloody predation is the greatest historic service. The Bolsheviks have dared to do it. They alone have dared. Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The presidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

* * * * * * * * *

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

* * * * * * * * *

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe – I have thought since – I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us. But in spite of the brilliant sunlight and the green fans of the trees waving in the soothing sea-breeze, the world was a confusion, blurred with drifting black and red phantasms, until I was out of earshot of the house in the chequered wall.

* * * * * * * * *

The Utopians dress simply and without ostentation: their clothes are made of undyed wool like the habits of Carthusian monks. And their society is unashamedly patriarchal. Wives act as servants to their husbands, children to their parents, and the young to their elders. Women are treated ‘equally’, but in reality are governed by their husbands. They also work harder – More seems oblivious to this point – since their duties include cooking and childcare as well as manual labour. Even in Utopia, it seems, working women have two jobs.

 * * * * * * * * *

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case. As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

* * * * * * * * *

I shared a compartment on the night train back with a father travelling to Petersburg with his daughter for her orthodonture work. She’d stumped half the dentists in Moscow, the father explained with obvious delight. The spotlight of paternal pride is fickle and faint, but when it shines on you with its full wattage, it’s as warm as a near sun. My little prodigy. Three drunks flicked over the cabin window. I wanted to be loved as much as he loved his daughter’s bad teeth.

“Go on, show him,” he urged. She gave a great yawn. Her open mouth was a dolomite cavern. Only divine intercession or satanic bargaining could save her.

“Just a little bit crooked,” I said, then gave a wide “Aah” of my own. “Mine are a little crooked too.”

“Mine are in a dental textbook,” she declared. She had me there. Wouldn’t have been older than twelve, and already she’d accomplished more in her life than I had. Rotten little over-achiever!

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 115…

Episode 115…

Well, suddenly my reading has dropped to almost non-existent this week, due to a whole variety of (too boring to mention) factors. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week. Given that, I’m delighted that the TBR has stayed stationary – at 196! My Queen of Willpower crown is still shining…

Here are a few that will rise to the top of the pile soon…

Sci-fi

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. Having loved the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Time Machine recently, I was delighted to be offered this companion volume, especially since this one is on my Classics Club list…

The Blurb says: “The creatures I had seen were not men, had never been men. They were animals, humanised animals…”

A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself stranded on a remote Noble island, the guest of a notorious scientist, Doctor Moreau. Disturbed by the cries of animals in pain, and by his encounters with half-bestial creatures, Edward slowly realises his danger and the extremes of the Doctor’s experiments.

Saturated in pain and disgust, suffused with grotesque and often unbearable images of torture and bodily mutilation, The Island of Doctor Moreau is unquestionably a shocking novel. It is also a serious, and highly knowledgeable, philosophical engagement with Wells’s times, with their climate of scientific openness and advancement, but also their anxieties about the ethical nature of scientific discoveries, and their implications for religion. Darryl Jones’s introduction places the book in both its scientific and literary context; with the Origin of Species and Gulliver’s Travels, and argues that The Island of Doctor Moreau is, like all of Wells’s best fiction, is fundamentally a novel of ideas.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I enjoyed Kanae Minato’s Confessions very much, so have been looking forward to this one being released…

The Blurb says:  The tense, chilling story of four women haunted by a childhood trauma.

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emili by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emili is found murdered hours later. Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emili’s body was discovered. Asako, Emili’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Like Confessions, Kanae Minato’s award-winning, internationally bestselling debut novel, Penance is a dark and voice-driven tale of revenge and psychological trauma that will leave readers breathless.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley again. (You can tell my plan to cut down on review copies is really working, cant’ you?) Another one I’ve been waiting on for a very long time, since 2011 in fact when I loved his Gods Without Men

The Blurb says: Two twenty-something New Yorkers: Seth, awkward and shy, and Carter, the trust fund hipster. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Rising fast on the New York producing scene, they stumble across an old blues song long forgotten by history — and everything starts to unravel. Carter is drawn far down a path that allows no return, and Seth has no choice but to follow his friend into the darkness.

Trapped in a game they don’t understand, Hari Kunzru’s characters move unsteadily across the chessboard, caught between black and white, performer and audience, righteous and forsaken. But we have been here before, oh so many times over, and the game always ends the same way…

Electrifying, subversive and wildly original, White Tears is a ghost story and a love story, a story about lost innocence and historical guilt. This unmissable novel penetrates the heart of a nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge and exploitation, and holding a mirror up to the true nature of America today.

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Crime

And yes, you’ve guessed – NetGalley again! I still haven’t managed to backtrack on this series since jumping in at number 7, but now here’s number 8 arriving and I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says: What if all your secrets were put online? Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online, drawing her into a trap she may not escape alive. Who would you turn to? Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything. What would you be capable of? Thrown together by a common enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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The Time Machine by HG Wells

A vision of the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…

While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.

As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)

Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…

Dare I watch it?

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.

As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!

HG Wells

The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.

The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 110…

Episode 110…

Well, the TBR dipped a little during the week, but tragically a late run of arrivals shoved it right back up – to 197 again! Still, it may not have gone down, but at least it hasn’t gone up – so that’s success, right? Right?? And I’m still avoiding the big 200 for the moment – which is actually kinda sad, because a few of us were getting quite enthusiastic last time about forming a 200 Club and looking down our noses at people with tiny TBRs of only 180 or so… maybe next week! 😉

Meantime, here are some that are toppling off the top of the pile…

Factual

history-of-the-russian-revolution-2For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. Penguin Modern Classics have issued a new edition of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution for the centenary year, with the original three parts all collected into one volume, and have kindly provided me with a copy. It’s 992 pages long, (big pages, small print), so I may be some time…

The Blurb says: “During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little known to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study.” Leon Trotsky, from History of the Russian Revolution

Regarded by many as among the most powerful works of history ever written, this book offers an unparalleled account of one of the most pivotal and hotly debated events in world history. This book reveals, from the perspective of one of its central actors, the Russian Revolution’s profoundly democratic, emancipatory character.

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Short Stories

house-of-skinThis collection has been on my TBR list since April 2011! I actually read a couple of the stories back then and was very impressed, but then got distracted and put it aside. Well past time I got back to it, and it will fit nicely for the Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says:  These are provocative, often shocking, tales of obsession, love, racism, addiction, betrayal, even murder, but told in such sensuous, richly-textured prose each story is rendered magical and timeless. The stories are set in islands across the Pacific where the author has lived and traveled extensively – Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Fiji, Vanuatu – parts of the world only barely explored in contemporary literature. Davenport offers her readers not just mesmerizing writing, but also brings them bulletins from an ancient, yet seemingly brave, new world.

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Sci-Fi

the-time-machineCourtesy of Amazon Vine. A new edition from Oxford World Classics, with an introduction and notes by Roger Luckhurst, who last appeared on the blog as the excellent and informative editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Couldn’t resist this re-read…

The Blurb says: At a Victorian dinner party, in Richmond, London, the Time Traveller returns to tell his extraordinary tale of mankind’s future in the year 802,701 AD. It is a dystopian vision of Darwinian evolution, with humans split into an above-ground species of Eloi, and their troglodyte brothers.

The first book H. G. Wells published, The Time Machine is a scientific romance that helped invent the genre of science fiction and the time travel story. Even before its serialisation had finished in the spring of 1895, Wells had been declared ‘a man of genius’, and the book heralded a fifty year career of a major cultural and political controversialist. It is a sardonic rejection of Victorian ideals of progress and improvement and a detailed satirical commentary on the Decadent culture of the 1890s.

This edition features a contextual introduction, detailed explanatory notes, and two essays Wells wrote just prior to the publication of his first book.

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Crime

the-dryI’ve seen so many glowing reviews of this, and was finally pushed over the edge by this one from Renee at It’s Book Talk… So I had to snaffle a copy from Amazon Vine…

The Blurb says: Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, it hasn’t rained in small country town Kiewarra for two years. Tensions in the community become unbearable when three members of the Hadler family are brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty.

Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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

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