The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 208…

Episode 208

A huge drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 223! I wish I could say this is because I’ve been racing through piles of great books, but it’s actually because several have been consigned to the garbage…

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon

History

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

This one was very kindly sent to me by a blog buddy who clearly knows my tastes very well! Civil War-era history, political conspiracy and an edge of true crime complete with famous detective Allan Pinkerton – sounds great!  

The Blurb says: Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award-winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the Baltimore Plot, an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War.

In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a clear and fully-matured threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart the plot, assisted by a captivating young widow named Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye. As Lincoln’s train rolled inexorably toward the seat of danger, Pinkerton struggled to unravel the ever-changing details of the murder plot, even as he contended with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisors, who refused to believe that the danger was real. With time running out Pinkerton took a desperate gamble, staking Lincoln’s life and the future of the nation on a perilous feint that seemed to offer the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president.

Shrouded in secrecy and, later, mired in controversy, the story of the Baltimore Plot is one of the great untold tales of the Civil War era, and Stashower has crafted this spellbinding historical narrative with the pace and urgency of a race-against-the-clock thriller.

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Classic Science Fiction

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Courtesy of the British Library. Not content with feeding my addiction for vintage crime, the BL is now intent on getting me hooked on vintage sci-fi. Not that I’m complaining… quite the reverse! I prefer older SF to contemporary stuff by far, because it tends to concentrate less on science and technology and more on humanity…

The Blurb says: In 1926 Muriel Jaeger, dissatisfied with the Utopian visions of H G Wells and Edward Bellamy, set out to explore ‘The Question Mark’ of what a future society might look like if human nature were properly represented. So, disgruntled London office worker Guy Martin is pitched 200 years into the future, where he encounters a seemingly ideal society in which each citizen has the luxury of every kind of freedom. But as Guy adjusts to the new world, the fractures of this supposed Utopia begin to show through, and it seems as if the inhabitants of this society might be just as susceptible to the promises of false messiahs as those of the twentieth century. Preceding the publication of Huxley’s Brave New World by 5 years, The Question Mark is a significant cornerstone in the foundation of the Dystopia genre, and an impressive and unjustly neglected work of literary science fiction. This edition brings the novel back into print for the first time since its original publication.

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Historical Fiction

The Second Sleep edited by Robert Harris

Courtesy of Hutchinson. A new release from Robert Harris is always a major event in my reading life and this one sounds very intriguing – a little different from his usual, perhaps…

The Blurb says: 1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote English village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artefacts–coins, fragments of glass, human bones–which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death?

Fairfax becomes determined to discover the truth. Over the course of the next six days, everything he believes–about himself, his faith and the history of his world–will be tested to destruction.

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Vintage Crime

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library again! ECR Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been re-issuing, so I’m delighted they’ve brought out another. Her settings are always one of her strengths, so I’m looking forward to a trip to Devon…

The Blurb says: When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice.

Everyone says that Sister Monica, warden of a children’s home, is a saint – but is she? A few months after the Ferens’ arrival her body is found drowned in the mill race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

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

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

Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 166…

Episode 166…

OK, this is deeply awful, so I’m just going to take a deep breath and get it over with…
the TBR is up TEN to 230. But it isn’t my fault!! Even the postman admits I’m being harassed by unfeeling book pushers!! I’m beginning to know how Homer feels…

Here are a few more that should rise to the surface soon…

Fiction

Courtesy of Allison & Busby. Having loved both of Suzanne Rindell’s earlier books, The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch, I can’t wait to get into this one… (Update: I’ve already started it, and so far it’s fab…)

The Blurb says: Louis Thorn and Haruto ‘Harry’ Yamada – the Eagle and the Crane – are the star attractions of a daredevil aerial stunt team that traverses Depression-era California. The young men have a complicated relationship, thanks to the Thorn family’s belief that the Yamadas – Japanese immigrants – stole land from the Thorn family. This tension is inflamed when Louis and Harry both drawn to the same woman, Ava. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor there are changes and harsh realities to face. And when one of the stunt planes crashes with two charred bodies inside, the ensuing investigation struggles when the details don’t add up and no one seems willing to tell the truth.

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Historical Crime, I think

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I was intrigued by all the positive reviews for Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, but as usual never managed to get around to reading it. So when I was offered this one, I thought I better snap it up…

The Blurb says: Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the word-of-mouth folk tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857, the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and the crofters are suspicious and hostile, claiming they no longer know their stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters tell her that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl has disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the spirits of the unforgiven dead. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but then she is reminded of her own mother, a Skye woman who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a link to be explored, and Audrey may uncover just what her family have been hiding from her all these years.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. This popped unexpectedly through my letterbox a week or two ago, which suggests sometimes publishers are psychic! I hadn’t spotted that it was being re-published, but it’s a book I’ve seen mentioned again and again as being a major influence on other early crime writers, so I really wanted to read it. Love the cover too!

The Blurb says: Breaking down her door in response to the sounds of a violent attack and a gunshot, Mademoiselle Stangerson’s rescuers are appalled to find her dying on the floor, clubbed down by a large mutton bone. But in a room with a barred window and locked door, how could her assailant have entered and escaped undetected? While bewildered police officials from the Sûreté begin an exhaustive investigation, so too does a young newspaperman, Joseph Rouletabille, who will encounter more impossibilities before this case can be closed.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, best remembered today as the author of The Phantom of the Opera, has been deservedly praised for more than a century as a defining book in the ‘impossible crime’ genre, as readable now as when it first appeared in French in 1907.

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Historical Fiction

One for my Five Times Five challenge. from the pen of the wonderful Robert Harris. I’ve seen so much praise for his Cicero trilogy, of which this is the first book, that my expectations are stratospheric. Oh dear… (Update: I’ve already started it and so far it’s fab…)

The Blurb says: When Tiro, the confidential secretary of a Roman senator, opens the door to a terrified stranger on a cold November morning, he sets in motion a chain of events which will eventually propel his master into one of the most famous courtroom dramas in history.

The stranger is a Sicilian, a victim of the island’s corrupt Roman governor, Verres. The senator is Cicero, a brilliant young lawyer and spellbinding orator, determined to attain imperium – supreme power in the state.

This is the starting-point of Robert Harris’s most accomplished novel to date. Compellingly written in Tiro’s voice, it takes us inside the violent, treacherous world of Roman politics, to describe how one man – clever, compassionate, devious, vulnerable – fought to reach the top.

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NB All blurbs and covers 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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Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

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….It was one of those dismal Berlin mornings, when the famous Berliner-luft seems not so much bracing as merely raw, the moisture stinging the face and hands like a thousand frozen needles. On the Potsdamer Chaussee, the spray from the wheels of the passing cars forced the few pedestrians close to the sides of the buildings. Watching them through the rain-flecked window, March imagined a city of blind men, feeling their way to work.
….It was all so normal. Later, that was what would strike him most. It was like having an accident: before it, nothing out of the ordinary; then the moment; and after it, a world that was changed forever. For there was nothing more routine than a body fished out of the Havel. It happened twice a month – derelicts and failed businessmen, reckless kids and lovelorn teenagers; accidents and suicides and murders; the desperate, the foolish, the sad.

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….On April 2, 1917, Wilson called on Congress to declare war on Germany. Seven months later, Lenin struck at the heart of Russia’s post-czarist Provisional Government and imposed the world’s first one-party state dictatorship. The world would never be the same again, on both counts.
….One mission of this book, therefore, is to show how these two intellectuals and dreamers managed to achieve those two ends and, in the process, overthrow traditional standards of geopolitics and alter forever the distribution of world power. Indeed, the world that both sought to bring into being was one that would be dominated not by laws and institutions, but by ideals and ideologies. The great goal of future foreign policy for both the United States and the eventual Soviet Union would be, not to protect their own national interests as narrowly understood, as almost all nations understood foreign policy before 1917, but to make others see the world as they did. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the eve of the French Revolution, “Sometimes men must be forced to be free.” That was a challenge the French revolutionaries took on, with disastrous results for Europe. It was one Wilson and Lenin both accepted in 1917, with (one is forced to conclude) disastrous results for the entire world.

(Am I the only one who wants to argue individually with nearly every word of those paragraphs? Oh dear, this could be an exhausting read… 😉 )

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….“For Joe?” said Mrs. Stevens placidly, her eye on the hat.
….Audrey nodded. She took a pin from her mouth, found a place in the hat for it, and said, “He likes a bit of pink.”
….“I don’t say I mind a bit of pink myself,” said her aunt. “Joe Turner isn’t the only one.”
….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

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….When I first got here I loved the landscape, the fertility and fecundity of it, the life it gave off. There were no bare places. Everything was shrouded in shoots and thorns and leaves; there were little paths running everywhere, made by animals or insects. The smells and colours were powerful. I used all my free time, hours and hours of it, to go off walking into the bush. I wanted to move closer to the lush heart of things. But over time what had compelled me most deeply began to show a different, hidden side. The vitality and heat became oppressive and somehow threatening. Nothing could be maintained here, nothing stayed the same. Metal started to corrode and rust, fabrics rotted, bright paint faded away. You could not clear a place in the forest and expect to find it again two weeks later.

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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*

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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.

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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.

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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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NetGalley Says Yes!

Mutual approval…

Last week, I posted about my NetGalley rejections, so this week I thought I’d talk about why I love NetGalley nearly as much as chocolate…

Of the 402 titles I’ve been approved for since I joined NG in 2013, I’ve sent feedback for 373 books (the rest are still on my TBR) and have posted reviews for 302 (though for a few I only posted a brief review on Goodreads). The others I abandoned, either because they weren’t for me or because they were too badly formatted to be enjoyable reading. Of the ones I’ve reviewed, roughly 65% were either 4 or 5 stars reads for me – pretty good, huh? Not quite as high as my ratings for books I buy, but then I’m more likely to take a chance on new or new-to-me authors through NG.

Narrowing my best picks down to a reasonable number would be nearly impossible, so instead I’ve decided to list a few of the authors I was introduced to by NG who have now become firm favourites – most are established authors but were new to me. So, in no particular order, here they are – my…

NETGALLEY HALL OF FAME

(Click on the author’s name to see my reviews.)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

My introduction to Robert Harris came through An Officer and a Spy, a wonderful fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Since then I’ve read every new book he’s released, plus I’ve started on his back catalogue, and I’ve loved every one. However I have loads more to go – he’s quite prolific! Next up will be his Cicero trilogy. He achieves the perfect marriage of research, plotting and excellent writing – great stuff!

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HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Given how much I’ve talked about various stories being Lovecraftian in my horror slot, it’s strange to think that I’d never heard of him till I read an Oxford World’s Classics collection called The Classic Horror Stories, with a very informative introduction by Roger Luckhurst (another entry to the Hall of Fame – I now look out specifically for books he introduces). I don’t altogether love Lovecraft – too long-winded, too racist – but I recognise absolutely the huge influence he has been on the ‘weird’ story and on horror in general. Since that first meeting, he’s made an annual appearance in my Tuesday Terror! slot.

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SC Gwynne

SC Gwynne

I was so blown away by SC Gwynne’s brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, that I gave it the FF Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The prize for this prestigious award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book, even if I have to buy it myself! Imagine my… ahem… delight, then, when Gwynne’s next book was The Perfect Pass – a book about American Football, a subject in which my interest and knowledge tie for last place. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it! Proof that a good writer can bring any subject to life. Oh, and I didn’t have to buy it – NetGalley gave me that one too.

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John Gaspard

John Gaspard

I’ve loved every book in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, all of which I’ve been given via NetGalley. A little too dark to be cosies, these are plotted in Golden Age style but with a contemporary setting. Eli is a stage magician and each book is set around a particular trick. Gaspard is brilliant at bringing the magic to life on the page, while following the magician’s code of never revealing how it’s done. I still laugh every time I remember how he managed to read my mind during a trick in book 1! His next book is due this month – can’t wait! And I’ve also bought an earlier book of his that predates this series – The Ripperologists – which sounds like fun too.

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Ken Kalfus

The first new-to-me author to whom NetGalley introduced me, when I fell in love with the cover of Equilateral and took a punt on it. He’s now a firm favourite – a writer who gets a lot of critical attention but still doesn’t seem to get the public readership and recognition I feel he deserves. I’ve read and loved a few of his books since then, old and new – only a couple more to go as he’s not nearly prolific enough! He spent several years in Russia so a lot of his books are directly or indirectly about life under the Soviets – he’s one of the inspirations behind my current fascination with that regime.

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Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman has firmly established himself as my favourite historian, despite some stiff competition in what has been a golden age for history books over the last few years. My first introduction to him was The Cave and The Light – a comprehensive look at the competing influences of Plato and Aristotle over the last 2,500 years of philosophy. Phew! Not an easy read, but a brilliant one. Since then, I’ve read all his new books and most of the ones that interest me from his back catalogue. And I’m super excited that he’s bringing out a new one on the Russian Revolution this month – the perfect way to end my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

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William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney

As probably the most influential Scottish crime writer of all time, known as the Father of Tartan Noir, I’m ashamed that I had never read any McIlvanney till NetGalley offered a new edition of his 1977 book, Laidlaw. I was blown away by the quality of the writing, his brilliant use of Glaswegian dialect and the total authenticity of his portrayal of the city at the time of my own youth in it. I have gone on to read the rest of the Laidlaw trilogy and one of his fiction novels, and am looking forward hugely to gradually working my way through the rest of his stuff. For McIlvanney alone, NetGalley has been a wondrous thing for me.

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So there they are – seven great authors I may never have read had it not been for NetGalley. And that’s not to mention all the wonderful books I’ve had from existing favourites like Jane Casey, Sharon Bolton, Belinda Bauer, etc., etc. All I can really say is…

THANKS, NETGALLEY!

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What about you? If you’re a NetGalley member have you found new favourites through them? If so, I’d love to hear – either in the comments or in a post of your own.

Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….He was an old man, slight, with white hair and bowed head, and with a professional caressing voice. His practice had shrunk, and his bills to Mrs. van Beer were large and paid without question. He was not dishonest or in any way a dishonourable man. Later events threw an unkindly brilliant light upon him. But he was an averagely diligent G.P., with a professional equipment which had been moderately good in 1889, the last year in which he had attempted to learn anything, with failing eyesight and memory and with an increasing difficulty in concentrating. Lack of any other resources forced him to go on practising when he should have retired. He had to live, and for that reason, someone else was to have to die.

* * * * * * * * *

I met Victory Day in East Prussia. For two days it was quiet, there was no shooting, then in the middle of the night a sudden signal: “Alert!” We all jumped up. And there came a shout: “Victory! Capitulation!” Capitulation was all right, but victory – that really got to us. “The war’s over! The war’s over!” We all started firing whatever we had: submachine guns, pistols… We fired our gun… One wiped his tears, another danced: “I’m alive, I’m alive!” A third fell to the ground and embraced it, embraced the sand, the stones. Such joy… And I was standing there and I slowly realised: the war’s over, and my papa will never come home. The war was over… The commander threatened later, “Well, there won’t be any demobilisation till the ammunition’s paid for. What have you done? How many shells have you fired?” We felt as if there would always be peace on earth, that no-one would ever want war, that all the bombs should be destroyed. Who needed them? We were tired of hatred. Tired of shooting.

Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva, Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery

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….Mrs Swettenham was once more deep in the Personal Column.
….Second hand Motor Mower for sale. Now I wonder… Goodness, what a price!… More dachshunds… “Do write or communicate desperate Woggles.” What silly nicknames people have… Cocker spaniels… Do you remember darling Susie, Edmund? She really was human. Understood every word you said to her… Sheraton sideboard for sale. Genuine family antique. Mrs Lucas, Dayas Hall… What a liar that woman is! Sheraton indeed…!’
….Mrs Swettenham sniffed and then continued her reading.
All a mistake, darling. Undying love. Friday as usual. – J… I suppose they’ve had a lovers’ quarrel – or do you think it’s a code for burglars? … More dachshunds! Really, I do think people have gone a little crazy about breeding dachshunds. I mean, there are other dogs. Your Uncle Simon used to breed Manchester Terriers. Such graceful little things. I do like dogs with legsLady going abroad will sell her two piece navy suiting… no measurements or price given… A marriage is announced – no, a murder. What? Well, I never! Edmund, Edmund, listen to this…

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

….‘What an extraordinary thing!’

* * * * * * * * *

….He stood at the window with a tumbler of whisky, smoking a cigarette, and watched the last traces of the sun disappear behind the trees of Ludwigkirchplatz. The sky glowed red. The trees looked like the shadows of primitive dancers cavorting around a fire. On the radio, the opening of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture signalled the start of a special news bulletin. The announcer sounded half-crazed with excitement.
….“Prompted by the desire to make a last effort to bring about the peaceful cession of the Sudeten German territory to the Reich, the Führer has invited Benito Mussolini, the head of the Italian Government; Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain; and Edouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, to a conference. The statesmen have accepted the invitation. The discussion will take place in Munich tomorrow morning, September 29th…”
….The communiqué made it seem as if the whole thing had been Hitler’s idea. And people would believe it, thought Hartmann, because people believed what they wanted to believe – that was Goebbels’s great insight. They no longer had any need to bother themselves with inconvenient truths. He had given them an excuse not to think.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

….In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.

* * * * *

….Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 133…

Episode 133…

Well! What can I say? Obviously starting a new challenge to read 102 classic crime novels was bound to be somewhat injurious to the old TBR. So I might as well just get it over with – it’s gone up by 18 to 213! The wishlist has gone through the stratosphere, but fortunately I only own up to that at the end of the quarter, by which time I’m sure it will all be back under control. Well, almost sure…

Meantime my reading slump seems to be finally wearing off a little, and hopefully these will help me recover my enthusiasm…

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley – apparently in the US it’s called Beartown. Couldn’t resist this one after reading Keeper of Pages‘ great review…

The Blurb says: Beartown is a small town in a large Swedish forest. For most of the year it is under a thick blanket of snow, experiencing the kind of cold and dark that brings people closer together – or pulls them apart. Its isolation means that Beartown has been slowly shrinking with each passing year. But now the town is on the verge of an astonishing revival. Everyone can feel the excitement. Change is in the air and a bright new future is just around the corner.

Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done. At last, it falls to one young man to find the courage to speak the truth that it seems no one else wants to hear. No one can stand by or stay silent. You’re on one side or another.

Which side will you find yourself on?

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Spies

Courtesy of the publisher, Hutchinson. Robert Harris has become one of my must-read authors and this one sounds fab…

The Blurb says: September 1938. Hitler is determined to start a war. Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace. The issue is to be decided in a city that will forever afterwards be notorious for what takes place there. Munich.

As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the Channel and the Fürher’s train steams relentlessly south from Berlin, two young men travel with secrets of their own.

Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries; Paul Hartmann a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance. Great friends at Oxford before Hitler came to power, they haven’t seen one another since they were last in Munich six years earlier. Now, as the future of Europe hangs in the balance, their paths are destined to cross again.

When the stakes are this high, who are you willing to betray? Your friends, your family, your country or your conscience?

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. First up for the Murder Mystery Mayhem Challenge and it looks like a goodie to start with…

The Blurb says: A woman is on trial for her life, accused of murder. The twelve members of the jury each carry their own secret burden of guilt and prejudice which could affect the outcome.

In this extraordinary crime novel, we follow the trial through the eyes of the jurors as they hear the evidence and try to reach a unanimous verdict. Will they find the defendant guilty, or not guilty? And will the jurors’ decision be the correct one?

Since its first publication in 1940, Verdict of Twelve has been widely hailed as a classic of British crime writing. This edition offers a new generation of readers the chance to find out why so many leading commentators have admired the novel for so long.

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Yo-ho-ho! And a bottle of rum!

Courtesy of Audible via the lovely people at MidasPR. I love Treasure Island so how could I possibly resist this? (I’ve actually already started it since I prepared this post and it’s stonkingly good so far!)

The Blurb says: Audible Originals takes to the high seas to bring to life this timeless tale of pirates, lost treasure maps and mutiny, starring BAFTA-nominated Catherine Tate (The Catherine Tate Show, The Office, Doctor Who), Philip Glenister (Outcast, Life On Mars), Owen Teale (Game of Thrones, Pulse, Last Legion) and Daniel Mays (The Adventures of Tintin, Rogue One, Atonement), amongst others.

When weathered old sailor Billy Bones arrives at the inn of young Jim Hawkins’ parents, it is the start of an adventure beyond anything he could have imagined. When Bones dies mysteriously, Jim stumbles across a map of a mysterious island in his sea chest, where X marks the spot of a stash of buried pirate gold. Soon after setting sail to recover the treasure, Jim realises that he’s not the only one intent on discovering the hoard. Suddenly he is thrown into a world of treachery, mutiny, castaways and murder, and at the centre of it all is the charming but sinister Long John Silver, who will stop at nothing to grab his share of the loot.

One of the best-loved adventure stories ever written, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 novel introduced us to characters such as the unforgettable Long John Silver, forever associating peg-legged pirates with ‘X marks the spot’ in our cultural consciousness. Following the success of the double Audie Award-winning Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories, Audible Originals UK are excited to announce this reimagination of Stevenson’s coming-of-age story that will captivate all of the family.

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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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FictionFan Awards 2016 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2016

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve abandoned more lit-fic novels this year than ever before, I think – partly due to my lengthy reading slump and partly due to the current fad for plotless musings and polemics thinly disguised as fiction. However, I’m delighted to say there have been some great reads, too, including a couple from new authors who will hopefully go on to even greater things in the future. The shortlist is too long, but I really couldn’t decide which of these fantastic books to leave out, so I’ll try to keep my comments on each brief…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

the high mountains of portugalThe High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The three interlinked stories in this book are each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains.  The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and sometimes surreal, and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, though symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

Click to see the full review

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exposureExposure by Helen Dunmore

When fading spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help, sucking Simon into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

In many ways this is a standard spy thriller. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children where we see the story from the adults’ side, and an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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three martini lunchThree-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers. The three main characters take turns to narrate their own stories: Eden, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing; rich boy Cliff, who is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big as a writer; and Miles, who has real talent as a writer, but as a black man must face the discrimination that is an integral part of the society of the time. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy. A great new talent – one to watch.

Click to see the full review

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zero kZero K by Don DeLillo

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as the narrator wanders alone through the silence of the cryogenics facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. It’s an exploration of identity, and of the importance of death in how we define and measure life. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it.

Click to see the full review

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enigma 2Enigma by Robert Harris

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, it’s the authenticity of the setting and the superb plotting that make this one so great.

Click to see the full review

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the girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

Evie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The characterisation is superb, especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

This isn’t just a book of the year for me, it’s one of the books of my lifetime. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn it into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope. Sethe’s is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016

THE WINNER

.

Best Fiction

Normally I’d rather choose a new book as Book of the Year, but Beloved is so outstanding it had to win! Some of the Great American Novel Quest books I’ve read this year have been pretty disappointing, but I’ll always be glad I started the quest since it was through it that I discovered this book. I realise most people have already read it, but if, like me, you’ve managed to miss it up till now, it gets my highest recommendation. The beautiful writing, savage imagery and deep understanding and sympathy for humanity make it a truly wonderful read – unforgettable.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

 

Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

Film of the Book: Enigma

Directed by Michael Apted (2001)

Enigma poster

From the book review:

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review, I described the novel as a masterclass in how to write a book, so the film had a high standard to reach. Unfortunately, this is one case where making a direct comparison worked significantly to the detriment of the film.

The first thing I noticed was how brightly shot and coloured the movie is. England looks like a green and pleasant land. Normally I’d appreciate this kind of visual treat, but the book shows a much bleaker England, where everything is cold and grey, where three years of war have taken their toll on the land and environment as much as on the people, who are tired and undernourished. The film mentions briefly the lack of normal foodstuffs, but gives no real feeling for the deprivations people were undergoing. The same applies to the cold – with coal rationing meaning that even indoors heating was barely adequate. In the film, the sun shines constantly. As a result, the atmosphere that Harris creates in the book of a country struggling to survive, desperate for the supplies sent from the US on shipping convoys, never really materialises.

Dougray Scott, Saffron Borrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester
Dougray Scott, Saffron Burrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester

While both Dougray Scott and Kate Winslett give fine performances, neither of them convinced me as the characters from the book. Scott is too old to be a man so thrown by losing his first love that he has a breakdown. One wonders why he has never been in love before, and also why he would have been naive enough to fall so heavily for Claire or believe that she had fallen for him. Winslett, one of my favourite actresses, is way too beautiful to be Hester. I had an urgent desire to tell Apted that sticking a pair of specs on a beautiful woman does not make her plain – I thought we’d got past that stereotype around about the same time as we came out of rationing.

Of course, it was important in the film that Hester was beautiful because the decision had been made, in typical Hollywood style, to have Jericho and Hester fall in love, and women, as we know, can only attract a man by being beautiful – in Hollywood. I don’t know whether that’s more insulting to men or women, in truth. But it did make me laugh that as she evolved into the love interest, Hester wore her specs less and less till eventually they disappeared altogether. Apparently it’s still true that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!

enigma 1

Apart from the insertion of the love story, the film sticks pretty closely to the underlying plot of the book, though in a somewhat abridged form due to time constraints. However, there are some major changes towards the end in the way the story plays out. I could understand why this had been done – the climax of the book doesn’t have the level of action we’ve come to expect from movie thrillers – and it didn’t hugely affect the overall storyline. But it did lead to some clumsiness that again took away from the authenticity of the wartime atmosphere. Trying to avoid spoilers, the idea that Jericho could suddenly decide to drive hundreds of miles with no word of where he might have got strictly rationed petrol was nearly as ridiculous as the suggestion that the police could search a car and not notice a massive great machine hidden under the folded-down roof. I didn’t mind that they changed the way the story played out, but I was irritated by the fact that they didn’t make enough effort to keep it credible.

enigma 3

The abridgement of the story also led to an awful lot of plot explanation being done by the device of characters telling each other things they would already have known. At the beginning, Jericho kindly explains to the Americans how Enigma worked – considering they had been working on building their own code-breaking machines for months, this seemed a little unnecessary. And the code-breakers too kept explaining to each other how they went about their jobs. Again, possibly for time or budget constraints, some scenes that I felt would have worked brilliantly on screen simply didn’t appear and again were quickly glossed over with a line or two of dialogue – for example, the heroic retrieval from a sinking U-boat of the original codebooks that gave the codebreakers the information they needed to break the Enigma codes.

Specless!
Specless!

I know I’ve been highly critical of the film, but the criticisms are mainly in terms of comparison to the book. Without that comparison it’s an enjoyable movie, though it doesn’t have the same levels of atmosphere, depth and authenticity that made the book so exceptional and, where changes have been made, they’ve been made clumsily. One where I think the movie would actually have worked much better for me if I’d watched it before I’d read the book, and thus had lower expectations.

★ ★ ★ ★

So it will be no surprise to learn that…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

enigma 2

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

gone fishing

Did you know?

…that the venue for the US Open at Flushing Meadows is built on the site that apparently inspired the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?

 

See you soon!

Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

TBR Thursday 91…

Episode 91…

Look here! It’s not my fault, and I can prove it! First of all, after loving Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds, Amazon sent me an e-mail telling me the first three books in the series were all on sale at £0.99 each. What could I do? Then they sent me another one telling me they’d put 500 books into their summer sale… including three that were already on my wishlist! Again, I ask you, what choice did I have? Clearly Amazon have joined the international conspiracy to drive me over the edge! All of which means this week’s TBR total has reached Himalayan heights… 177!! I don’t want to talk about it…

Here are some of the ones that I should be reading soon…

Fiction

enigma 2From my 20 Books of Summer list…

The Blurb says: Bletchley Park: the top-secret landmark of World War Two, where a group of young people were fighting to defeat Hitler, and win the war. March 1943, the Second World War hangs in the balance, and at Bletchley Park a brilliant young codebreaker is facing a double nightmare. The Germans have unaccountably changed their U-boat Enigma code, threatening a massive Allied defeat. And as suspicion grows that there may be a spy inside Bletchley, Jericho’s girlfriend, the beautiful and mysterious Claire Romilly suddenly disappears.

* * * * *

different classCourtesy of NetGalley and another of the 20 Books. And one of my favourite covers of the year…

The Blurb says: After thirty years at St Oswald’s Grammar in North Yorkshire, Latin master Roy Straitley has seen all kinds of boys come and go. Each class has its clowns, its rebels, its underdogs, its ‘Brodie’ boys who, whilst of course he doesn’t have favourites, hold a special place in an old teacher’s heart. But every so often there’s a boy who doesn’t fit the mould. A troublemaker. A boy with hidden shadows inside.

With insolvency and academic failure looming, a new broom has arrived at the venerable school, bringing Powerpoint, sharp suits and even sixth form girls to the dusty corridors. But while Straitley does his sardonic best to resist this march to the future, a shadow from his past is stirring. A boy who even twenty years on haunts his teacher’s dreams. A boy capable of bad things.

* * * * *

Crime

jane steele 2NetGalley again. 20 Books again. I think there’s a pattern here. This could be brilliant or awful… but it’s certainly irresistible…

The Blurb says: Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

* * * * *

the seekerNetgalley. 20 Books! A bit of historical crime and another great cover…

The Blurb says: London, 1657, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. No one knows where Damian Seeker originated from, who his family is, or even his real name. Mothers frighten their children by telling them tales of The Seeker. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell, and that nothing can be long hidden from him.

In the new, fashionable coffee houses of London, a murder takes place. All London is ringing with the news that John Winter is dead, the lawyer Elias Ellingworth, found holding a knife over the bleeding body of the dying man, held in the Tower. Despite the damning evidence, Seeker is not convinced of Ellingworth’s guilt. He will stop at nothing to bring the right man to justice…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
NOVEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. (Time to think up a new idea for next year, Cleo! 😉 )

So here are my favourite November reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

after the lockoutVictor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic.

But although there is much about religion and politics in this book, the author manages to keep it on a very human level – what we see are two fundamentally good but fallible men driven by circumstances to battle for the hearts and souls of the people. This very fine novel is so well written and accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it is the author’s first. Sadly, so far it has also been his last…

 

2012

 

fujisanThis rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. In each story the central character seems somehow damaged and alone, struggling to work out who they are and why they feel what they feel. There is a spiritual feel to the book; these characters are seeking something that will enable them to explain themselves to themselves and their searches take them in strange and surprising directions. ‘Blue Summit’ tells of an ex-cult member now working in a convenience store and learning how to live outside the cult. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a disturbing tale of three boys confronting death while spending a night in the woods of Mount Fuji. ‘Jamilla’ is a compulsive hoarder and this is the tale of the social worker detailed to clear her house. And lastly, in ‘Child of Night’ a walk up the mountain becomes a journey of self-discovery for a nurse who is struggling with the ethics of her job.

This was my first introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction and has some of the features I’ve since encountered in other books – a strange passivity to some of the characters and a feeling of a generation that has thrown out its old traditions but hasn’t quite worked out how to replace them. I’m not at all sure that I fully understood the book (as often happens to me with Japanese fiction) but I found it compelling and thought provoking, and although it saddened and even disturbed me in places, I felt oddly uplifted in the end.

 

2013

 

an officer and a spyBased on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant.

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history.

 

2014

 

the zig-zag girlWhen the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, and the rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. And I’m delighted to say that the next in the series Smoke and Mirrors is, if anything, even better. A must-read series.

 

2015

 

coup de foudreThis collection of a novella and 15 short stories lives up to the high expectations I have developed for the writing of this hugely talented author. The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality.

Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus.

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for November, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

an officer and a spyJ’accuse!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them.

We are given the story as the first-person account of Major Georges Picquart. Having been the Minister of War’s eyes and ears during the trial and Dreyfus’ subsequent ‘military degradation’, Picquart is then appointed to the post of head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – a euphemism for the spy branch of the army. Convinced at first of Dreyfus’ guilt, he becomes concerned when evidence comes to light that indicates a different source for the leaks to the Germans. On drawing this to his superiors’ attention, he is ordered not to pursue the matter. However his conscience won’t allow him to let the matter rest there and soon he is part of the ‘Dreyfusards’ – the informal group of artists, liberals and thinkers who are campaigning for the case to be re-opened.

Auguste Mercier Minister of War
Auguste Mercier
Minister of War
Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus
Georges Picquart
Georges Picquart

 

This is a fascinating story in real life and Harris succeeds in making it just as interesting in a fictionalised form. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant. At a time when France was still suffering the shame of losing Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and with the fear of a future war never far from the thoughts of the politicians, Dreyfus, as a Jew and something of a misfit in the army, was the ideal scapegoat. But the real interest is not in the conviction, but in the conspiracy to cover up the mistakes of the original investigation, and the extreme lengths to which those in power were willing to go to ensure that the verdict of guilty would stand.

Emile Zola's famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case
Emile Zola’s famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case

We get a clear picture of the status of the army and the generals’ influence on the politicians. We see how both anti-German sentiment and anti-Semitism played their part in the affair, though I felt that Harris rather played down the former in order to somewhat over-emphasise the latter in his telling of the tale. Harris shows the underlying political divide in French society that evolved into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard movements – leaving the man himself as something of a pawn in the midst of a struggle that had grown well beyond the simple matter of his guilt or innocence. But Harris manages to humanise Dreyfus by letting the reader see some of the correspondence between him and his wife during his captivity and by telling us of the physical and mental hardships he was subjected to.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense – a fashion I truly hope comes to an end fairly soon – and this reads even more clumsily because it’s also a first-person account. I know authors think the present tense gives immediacy to a narrative, but it rarely does in actuality and, for me at least, didn’t at all in this one. There’s very little ‘action’ and the tense doesn’t suit a story that is stretched over more than a decade and is obviously being told retrospectively. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history. Although I was aware of the basic facts of the affair, the book gave me a much clearer idea of the personalities and politics involved, while, by concentrating on Picquart’s story, Harris avoided the pitfalls of making it overly preachy or impersonal. And his account is detailed enough that the book would be equally enjoyable to someone who doesn’t know about this episode – perhaps more so in fact since there would then be an element of suspense (which I have done my best not to spoil). Highly recommended.

I was inspired to read this book as a result of this review from Lady Fancifull. Thanks, LF – yet another in the long list of great books you’ve introduced me to!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 8…

Episode 8

 

This whole TBR Thursday thing was supposed to stop my list growing – so can anyone please explain why it’s now sitting at 105? And to make matters worse, this week sees the first joint-winners. Never mind, I’m sure eventually I’ll evolve so that I can read different books with each eye simultaneously, while listening to an audiobook…

The last two weeks produced a dramatic longlist of 12, but with the help of my trusty pinking shears I’ve cut that down to a shortlist of 5 (and given the pages a lovely deckle-edged finish at the same time).

Here, then, are the runners and riders in this week’s TBR Derby…

Up with the pack…

 

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

the holy thiefHistorical crime set in Stalin’s Moscow…

The Little Reader Library says: “This is an exciting and atmospheric historical crime novel with an intriguing plot and well-drawn characters. Moreover, the author has chosen a fascinating setting and period as the backdrop for the novel and then captured it convincingly, adding much authentic detail but never overwhelming the reader or holding up the plot.

See the full review at The Little Reader Library

*******

Red JoanInspired by the true case of a Soviet spy operating in Britain…

It’s a Crime! says “Red Joan is a novel that explores ambiguities, grey areas and the two sides of a coin. In plotting the course of personal development and disclosure of changing motivation Rooney creates characters with whom we sympathise whatever the next page throws up. It is also an unusual mix of spy thriller and love story as we track the life of Red Joan.

See the full review at It’s a Crime!

*******

is this tomorrowA child goes missing in Boston of the 1950s…

Curl Up and Read says “Those times depicted in the media as peaceful were anything but, and always hovering nearby were the fears and paranoia: nuclear war, Communism, and the stigma placed on those who were different. Beneath the surface, nothing is perfect or as it seems. Is This Tomorrow: A Novel is a hauntingly poignant read.

See the full review at Curl Up and Read

*******

Photo finishers…

 

an officer and a spy

Historical thriller based on the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France…

Lady Fancifull says “I overheard Harris being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about this ‘novel’ – except to call it a novel implies that it must be fiction. As Harris and the interviewer concurred, if someone invented the Dreyfus affair as a fiction, the writer would be castigated for having stretched credulity too far. In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and researched, and is a deeply shameful part of France’s history. Except that what is even more worrying and shameful is that large scale cover-ups, the concept of obeying orders without question, systems protecting their own despite betraying principles of justice, and inherent racism are not endemic flaws peculiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century France.

See the full review at Lady Fancifull

*****

the devil in the white city

A true story about two men – an architect and a serial killer – at the time of the Chicago Fair in the 1890s…

History Reading Challenge says: “This book sounded so creepy that when I started my History Reading Challenge months ago, I knew I had to save it until the spookiest month of the year, October. And the “devil” of its title is definitely creepy in that over-the-top, steampunk -supervillain kind of way. His charm was preternaturally overpowering, enough so that his many victims—and, later, investigators and creditors—fell for the most flimsy excuses he bothered to offer them. He relied on his personal charisma to manipulate people and enjoyed the heady, invulnerable feeling of power it brought.

See the full review at History Reading Challenge

*****

Two winners this week. The Dreyfus Affair was discussed in The War that Ended Peace so, when Lady Fancifull raved about An Officer and a Spy, it seemed too serendipitous to ignore. The Devil in the White City was shortlisted before on the basis of this review of LitBeetle’s and sounded just as interesting again, even if History Reading Challenge’s review is a little less enthusiastic.

I expect to read them both some time this millenium…