Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

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

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

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

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Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

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 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

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

TBR Thursday 179…

Episode 179…

Well, considering how many books have arrived in my house over the last week, I’m astonished to report that the TBR has only gone up by 2 – to 228! Clearly I must be getting through them as fast as a champion swimmer just about to take Olympic gold – what could possibly go wrong?

(This looks remarkably like my postman…)

Here’s a few more I should be getting my teeth into soon…

True Crime

The only non-fiction book on my Classics Club list, I can’t understand why I’ve never got around to reading this before – surely the most famous true crime book of them all. Time to correct this omission…

The Blurb says: The chilling true crime ‘non-fiction novel’ that made Truman Capote’s name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human.

‘It is the American dream turning into the American nightmare … By juxtaposing and dovetailing the lives and values of the Clutters and those of the killers, Capote produces a stark image of the deep doubleness of American life … a remarkable book’ Spectator.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I have loved both the ECR Lorac books the BL has previously re-published, so am thrilled at the thought of this one. Great title, great cover… will the insides match up? My hopes are high…

The Blurb says: London. 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.

During a stroll through Regent’s Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig’s view of the assailant but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.

The murderer’s noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim’s identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac’s shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man MacDonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Penguin Viking via NetGalley. Although he can be variable, I love William Boyd and each new book is a special pleasure. This one is being very positively reviewed so far, and the setting – Edinburgh, Paris, pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg – almost makes it seem as if he’s written it specially for me. Hmm… my expectations are pretty stratospheric… can it possibly live up to them??

The Blurb says: This is William Boyd’s sweeping, heart-stopping new novel. Set at the end of the 19th century, it follows the fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish musician, about to embark on the story of his life.

When Brodie is offered a job in Paris, he seizes the chance to flee Edinburgh and his tyrannical clergyman father, and begin a wildly different new chapter in his life. In Paris, a fateful encounter with a famous pianist irrevocably changes his future – and sparks an obsessive love affair with a beautiful Russian soprano, Lika Blum. Moving from Paris to St Petersburg to Edinburgh and back again, Brodie’s love for Lika and its dangerous consequences pursue him around Europe and beyond, during an era of overwhelming change as the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.

Love is Blind is a tale of dizzying passion and brutal revenge; of artistic endeavour and the illusions it creates; of all the possibilities that life can offer, and how cruelly they can be snatched away. At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best loved storytellers.

* * * * *

Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. This is the third and last of the selection of new horror collections HarperCollins kindly sent me. I’ve only “met” Robert W Chambers once before, in a short collection of his The King in Yellow stories, and to be honest I wasn’t thrilled by them. So it’ll be interesting to see if this collection can change my mind…

The Blurb says: Robert William Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895) has long been recognised as a landmark work in the field of the macabre, and has been described as the most important work of American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns. Despite the book’s success, its author was to return only rarely to the genre during the remainder of a writing career which spanned four decades.

When Chambers did return to the supernatural, however, he displayed all the imagination and skill which distinguished The King in Yellow. He created the enigmatic and seemingly omniscient Westrel Keen, the ‘Tracer of Lost Persons’, and chronicled the strange adventures of an eminent naturalist who scours the earth for ‘extinct’ animals – and usually finds them. One of his greatest creations, perhaps, was 1920’s The Slayer of Souls, which features a monstrous conspiracy to take over the world: a conspiracy which can only be stopped by supernatural forces.

For the first time in a single volume, Hugh Lamb has selected the best of the author’s supernatural tales, together with an introduction which provides further information about the author who was, in his heyday, called ‘the most popular writer in America’.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken. The faster the train went, the more buoyant and taunting the undulations.
Guy took his eyes from the window and hitched himself back against the seat.
Miriam would delay the divorce at best, he thought. She might not even want a divorce, only money. Would there ever really be a divorce from her?
Hate had begun to paralyse his thinking, he realised, to make little blind alleys of the roads that logic had pointed out to him in New York. He could sense Miriam ahead of him, not much farther now, pink and tan-freckled, and radiating a kind of unhealthful heat, like the prairie out the window. Sullen and cruel.

* * * * * * * * *

The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents. It was not that the film dealt directly with racial unrest, campus protests, or an overseas war. Benjamin Braddock’s story was never intended as an accurate picture of the late sixties. Its makers had casually imagined their tale as set in 1962, the year in which Charles Webb wrote his original novel. (That’s why Ben, lounging in his family backyard, has no fear of receiving that “Greetings” letter from his draft board.) Still, The Graduate‘s prescience about matters of grave concern to the Baby Boom generation gave it a life of its own. If we young Americans were anxious about parental pressure, or about sex (and our lack thereof), or about marriage, or about the temptations posed by plastics, it was all visible for us on the movie screen. Today The Graduate continues to serve as a touchstone of that pivotal moment just before some of us began morphing into angry war protesters and spaced-out hippies.

* * * * * * * * *

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

* * * * * * * * *

Dear Mr Macfarlane

You call yourself a banker, you sad little man. Worse, you call yourself a ‘personal’ banker and yet you hide and cower behind the faceless law. As a banker you are meant to offer fiscal support – not withdraw it. And to send a writ, like that, with no warning . . . It defies belief. Or rather it doesn’t defy belief – a second’s thought makes one realize that it is the nasty little bureaucrats, the creepy apparatchiks of the financial state like yourself, who are the true enemies of people like me. People with ambitions, with dreams – artists, in other words. Someone, some worm like you, some vile money-lender in Renaissance Italy, would have closed da Vinci’s line of credit. I herewith terminate my account with your bank. I herewith counter-sue you for incompetence and negligence. I herewith warn you that I will write to every consumer website on the planet and inform them of –

From the story Unsent Letters

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

* * * * *

“As she unlaced her blouse, he touched fingertips to her trembling bare shoulders and explained in his low gravel that he only ate human beings he did not know. I know your name now, he murmured. I know your travels. You’re safe.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“It’s a weakness in our family,” said Mrs Nickleby, “so, of course, I can’t be blamed for it. Your grandmama, Kate, was exactly the same – precisely. The least excitement, the slightest surprise – she fainted away directly. I have heard her say, often and often, that when she was a young lady, and before she was married, she was turning a corner into Oxford Street one day, when she ran against her own hairdresser, who, it seems, was escaping from a bear;– the mere suddenness of the encounter made her faint away directly. Wait, though,” added Mrs Nickleby, pausing to consider. “Let me be sure I’m right. Was it her hairdresser who had escaped from a bear, or was it a bear who had escaped from her hairdresser’s? I declare I can’t remember just now, but the hairdresser was a very handsome man, I know, and quite a gentleman in his manners; so that it has nothing to do with the point of the story.”

* * * * * * * * *

By contrast, John Rylands’s library was a middlebrow mix of piety and practicality. The son of a draper from St Helen’s, Manchester’s first multi-millionaire lived from 1857 at Longford Hall, an Italianate mansion which he had built in the nearby village of Stretford. The house was unpretentious, and the library, of some 1,808 volumes, could hardly have been less like the library which Mrs Rylands later founded in her husband’s memory. Entirely devoid of antique or rare books, it included volumes of light reading (Dickens and Walter Scott) but also many religious books, as Rylands was a devout Congregationalist. [ . . .] Other books, like a Boy’s own Book of Boats (1868) seem somewhat more unexpected, while Scott’s Practical Cotton Spinner, and Manufacturer (Preston, 1840) and Etiquette for Gentlemen (1854) provoke interesting and perhaps rather moving reflections on the life story of a self-made man.

* * * * * * * * *

“Have I ever told you that I think you’re a stunningly attractive woman?”
She turned her knowing brown eyes on him.
“You have, actually. Many times.”
“I’d love to kiss you. Properly, I mean.”
It nearly always worked, It was a simple wish expressed – heartfelt, genuine – and one hard to be offended by. It was a compliment, of sorts, though risqué. Sometimes the women said, “Well, thank you, but no thanks.” Or else, “Not here, not now.” Sometimes they looked at him, smiled, said nothing, and moved away. But, mostly, they were intrigued, and soon, after a while, after some more conversation, they found a way and a location and a time where the kiss could take place.
“You’ve already kissed me,” Suki said, sardonically. “If I recall.”

* * * * * * * * *

(The crew have been stranded on an ice floe for weeks, food is running out and they are on strict, tiny rations, facing starvation. All they are allowed for breakfast is some powdered milk and a lump of sugar. They had hoped to go back to their original camp that day to get food supplies that had been left there…)

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

Once their tears had dried, or before, they began naming roads and bridges, tunnels, highways and buildings for him, creating a grief-stricken empire of asphalt, mortar, brick, and bronze so extensive that if you extinguished every light on earth except those illuminating something named for him, astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center would have seen a web of lights stretching across Europe and North America, and others scattered through Africa and Asia…

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Of chimps and humans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.

While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.

The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.

William Boyd

Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.

This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.

While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.

Harriet Walter

For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 143…

Episode 143…

I’ve been remarkably restrained in my book acquiring so far this month. Unfortunately after a manic burst of reading for a couple of weeks, I now seem to have slowed to a crawl again. So a moderate drop of just 1 in the TBR – to 217. And unless a miracle happens I’m going to fail to achieve my Goodreads challenge target of 125 – I’d need to finish 10 books before the end of the year. Not impossible… but not likely!

Oh, stop whining, Alice! The simple answer is to read more books…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. Princeton keep offering me books that fall well outside my normal reading range – sometimes they work for me, sometimes they don’t. Will this one? Hmm, we’ll see…

The Blurb says: Curves are seductive. These smooth, organic lines and surfaces–like those of the human body–appeal to us in an instinctive, visceral way that straight lines or the perfect shapes of classical geometry never could. In this large-format book, lavishly illustrated in color throughout, Allan McRobie takes the reader on an alluring exploration of the beautiful curves that shape our world–from our bodies to Salvador Dali’s paintings and the space-time fabric of the universe itself.

The book focuses on seven curves–the fold, cusp, swallowtail, and butterfly, plus the hyperbolic, elliptical, and parabolic “umbilics”–and describes the surprising origins of their taxonomy in the catastrophe theory of mathematician Rene Thom. (FF says: Good gracious!) In an accessible discussion illustrated with many photographs of the human nude (FF says: Eh??), McRobie introduces these curves and then describes their role in nature, science, engineering, architecture, art, and other areas. The reader learns how these curves play out in everything from the stability of oil rigs and the study of distant galaxies to rainbows, the patterns of light on pool floors, and even the shape of human genitals (FF faints). The book also discusses the role of these curves in the work of such artists as David Hockney, Henry Moore, and Anish Kapoor, with particular attention given to the delicate sculptures of Naum Gabo and the final paintings of Dali, who said that Thom’s theory “bewitched all of my atoms.”

A unique introduction to the language of beautiful curves, this book may change the way you see the world.

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Pastiche

Courtesy of the author. I was contacted by the publisher on behalf of the author of this one, on the grounds that since I love Holmes and Three Men in a Boat, I might also love this mash-up pastiche. I shuddered and got ready to haughtily refuse… but then I read the “look inside” sample on Amazon and found myself chuckling jollily. I suspect it’s going to be loads of fun…

The Blurb says: 221b Baker St., London, early 1890s. For three Victorian slackers—to say nothing of their dog—becoming Sherlock Holmes’s neighbors is very nearly the death of them. Jerome and his friends are planning a jaunt when Miss Briony Lodge calls at Baker Street. The beautiful young schoolmistress is in deadly danger. But what match are a bank clerk, a lawyer’s assistant, a dog and a novelist for an international gang of desperadoes? None whatsoever. It would take an intellect of Sherlock Holmes’s proportions to set things to rights. Or maybe, perhaps, an otter.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I usually love William Boyd (but sometimes don’t!), so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve been delaying it because I’m currently listening to another Boyd book on audio, Brazzaville Beach – loving it, but for some reason it’s taking me forever to get through…

The Blurb says: A philandering art dealer tries to give up casual love affairs – seeking only passionate kisses as a substitute. A man recounts his personal history through the things he has stolen from others throughout his life. A couple chart the journey of their five year relationship backwards, from awkward reunion to lovelorn first encounter. And, at the heart of the book, a 24-year old young woman, Bethany Mellmoth, embarks on a year-long journey of wishful and tentative self-discovery.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth depicts the random encounters that bring the past bubbling to the surface; the impulsive decisions that irrevocably shape a life; and the endless hesitations and loss-of-nerve that wickedly complicate it. These funny, surprising and moving stories are a resounding confirmation of Boyd’s powers as one of our most original and compelling storytellers.

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Bah Humbug!

I have a tradition of watching, reading or listening to A Christmas Carol over the festive season, and like to try out new versions if I can. This is one of Audible’s own full-cast original dramatisations (which regulars will know I’ve been loving this year) and stars the wondrous Derek Jacobi as Dickens (I’m assuming the narrator of the linking bits)…

The Blurb says: ‘If I had my way, every idiot who goes around with Merry Christmas on his lips, would be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. Merry Christmas? Bah humbug!’

Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale of sour and stingy miser Ebenezer Scrooge has captivated readers, listeners and audiences for over 150 years. This Christmas, Audible Studios brings this story to life in an audio drama featuring an all-star cast.

Starring: Sir Derek Jacobi as Dickens, Kenneth Cranham as Ebenezer Scrooge, Roger Allam as Jacob Marley, Brendan Coyle as The Ghost Of Christmas Past, Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost Of Christmas Present, Tim Mcinnerny as The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit, Emily Bruni as Mrs. Cratchit, Jenna Coleman as Belle, Joshua James as Young Scrooge and Hugh Skinner as Fred.

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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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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The Master of Ballantrae, James in baptism, took from his father the love of serious reading; some of his tact perhaps as well, but that which was only policy in the father became black dissimulation in the son. The face of his behaviour was merely popular and wild: he sat late at wine, later at the cards; had the name in the country of “an unco man for the lasses;” and was ever in the front of broils. But for all he was the first to go in, yet it was observed he was invariably the best to come off; and his partners in mischief were usually alone to pay the piper. This luck or dexterity got him several ill-wishers, but with the rest of the country, enhanced his reputation; so that great things were looked for in his future, when he should have gained more gravity. […] I think it notable that he had always vaunted himself quite implacable, and was taken at his word; so that he had the addition among his neighbours of “an ill man to cross.” Here was altogether a young nobleman (not yet twenty-four in the year ’45) who had made a figure in the country beyond his time of life.

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She told him it had been six years ago that she had stayed a day with the Rasputins while on a pilgrimage to Kiev. It was the busy season, and Rasputin was mostly out in the fields, but he would often run home to check on things, each time trying to get her to kiss him. She resisted, insisting that it was not right, but he told her that “among us spiritual pilgrims seeking to save ourselves there is a type of spiritual kissing, like the way the Apostle Paul kissed St. Thekla.” Karneeva repeated how while climbing up out of the chapel beneath the stables, he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. It was then Rasputin told her of the appearance of the Holy Spirit. Later that day, Glukhovtsev brought Karneeva and Rasputin together for what the Russians called an ochnaia stavka, a sort of face-to-face confrontation, to try to get to the bottom of her claims. Seated directly across from Rasputin, Karneeva repeated everything she had told Glukhovtsev. To each of her statements Rasputin said little more than “That was all long ago, I don’t recall a thing,” or “I don’t remember a thing from that far back,” or simply “I don’t remember that.”

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I had visited the place several times when the professor was alive, and I was also a student of zoology, especially anthropods, so I should have been quite used to the sight; nevertheless it still gave me the shivers and I was rooted for a moment to the spot. Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs. Big Oni-gumo and Joro spiders, yellow with blue stripes; Harvestmen with legs ten times longer than their bodies; Cellar spiders with yellow spots on their backs. The grotesque Kimura spider and trapdoor spiders, Ji-gumo, Ha-gumo, Hirata-gumo, Kogane-gumo; all these different kinds of spider had not been fed for about a month and, having lost most of their flesh, were looking around with shiny, hungry eyes for food. Some jars had not been properly sealed and the escaped spiders had spun their webs on the ceiling and in the corners of the room. Countless numbers of the ghastly creatures were crawling around on the walls and ceiling.

From The Spider by Koga Saburo

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I sauntered through the camp towards my hut. On my left, scattered amongst nim and palm trees and big clumps of hibiscus hedge, were the most important buildings in the camp complex – the garage and workshops, Mallabar’s bungalow, the canteen, the kitchen and storage sheds, and beyond them the now abandoned dormitory of the census workers. Beyond that, over to the right, I could just see, through a screen of plumbago hedge, the round thatched roofs of the cooks’ and small boys’ quarters.

I continued past the huge hagania tree that dominated the centre of the camp and which had given it its name: grosso arvore. The Grosso Arvore Research Centre.

On the other side of the track, opposite the canteen, was Hauser’s laboratory and behind that was the tin cabin he shared with Toshiro. Thirty yards along from the lab was the Vails’ bungalow, not as big as chez Mallabar but prettier, freighted with jasmine and bougainvillea. And then, finally, at the camp’s northern extremity, was my hut. In fact “hut” was a misnomer: I lived in a cross between a tent and a tin shack, a curious dwelling with canvas sides and a corrugated iron roof. I suppose it was fitting that it should go to me, on the principle that the newest arrival should occupy the least permanent building, but I was not displeased with it and was indifferent to what it might say about my status.

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From the Archives…

Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
AUGUST

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.

So here are my favourite August reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

shutter island

Teddy Daniels, US Marshall, is a capable and attractive hero, a decorated veteran battling with memories of the horrors he saw during WWII and the more recent memories of the death of his beloved wife in a tragic fire. Sent to investigate the escape of a patient from a high-security asylum for extremely violent and insane offenders, Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule come to believe that the break-out would only have been possible with the help of one or more members of the staff. From this promising start, the book then spirals through ever changing conspiracy theories, which buffet and batter the reader much as the asylum is being battered by the hurricane that has cut off communication with the mainland. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to know what is true and who is sane. An excellent and disturbing psychological thriller that reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in its questioning of the nature of sanity and madness. The cause of some lost sleep…

 

2012

 

knowledge of sins pastThe second in Lexie Conyngham’s fine historical crime series, this one sees Charles Murray of Letho, estranged from his father, taking work as tutor to the young sons of Lord Scoggie. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…

Set in 19th century Scotland, Conyngham does her usual excellent job in combining a look at aspects of post-Enlightenment Scottish society with a decent murder mystery.  In this one, Charles’ interactions with his young pupils give scope for a good deal of humour which lightens the tone, and his position as tutor gives him an entry into the worlds of both masters and servants. This has been one of my favourite series for a while now, despite a little disappointment with the most recent one. Although each book works as a standalone, to get the full benefit of the characterisation I would recommend they should be read in order, starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown.

 

2013

 

PU239Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. As a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read.

 

2014

 

the sun also risesIf the sign of a great book is that it takes up permanent residence in the reader’s mind, then this one must be great. It’s one of those books that I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual reading of it. This tale of the feckless ‘lost generation’ drinking their way across Europe while taking turns to have sex with the ever willing Lady Brett irritated me intensely with its constant descriptions of drunkeness and long passages of tediously banal dialogue. But as I stood back after finishing it, I realised what a stunning depiction of machismo and masculinity it actually is, while the beauty of some of the descriptive writing has left indelible images in my mind – of the dusty streets, the restaurants and bars, the bus journey to Spain, and most of all of the rituals surrounding the annual bullfighting fiesta and running of the bulls in Pamplona. The characterisation is patchy, often using cheap racial stereotyping, and the structure is messy but, despite all its flaws, in the end the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.

 

2015

 

waiting for sunrise coverWhen young actor Lysander Rief gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. The book is about lies, deception and self-deception and, despite some dark moments, has a layer of wit bubbling beneath the surface which keeps the overall tone light. Lysander has been visiting a psychiatrist who introduces him to the concept of ‘parallelism’. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. When Boyd is on form, as he is here, then there are few more enjoyable authors.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

waiting for sunrise coverSpies and lies…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young actor Lysander Rief consults an eminent psychiatrist in pre-WW1 Vienna about a problem, Dr Bensimon introduces him to the concept of parallelism. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. As Lysander gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. And despite some dark moments, it continues to feel like that all the way through, as if Lysander is playing a role in one of the great spy thrillers of the past. There are scenes that reminded me of The Third Man, with shadowy figures hiding in alleyways, and the characters, with the exception of Lysander himself, feel like representations of fictional ‘types’ rather than real people – the mysterious femme fatale, the traitor, the manipulative spymaster, etc.

“Let’s say that the world is in essence neutral – flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

Lysander’s little problem is of course sexual – this is a Boyd book, after all – arising from an excruciatingly embarrassing (but very funny) episode in his youth. Encouraged by Dr Bensimon, he keeps a journal which forms part of the narrative, allowing the reader to see the world through his eyes. Coincidentally, it’s at Dr Bensimon’s office that he first meets Hettie, the woman who will firstly help cure his problem, and then be instrumental in creating the situation that later forces him into the world of spying. And coincidentally, the man who will be his spymaster also first meets Lysander in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these coincidences, and the many others that follow, are hardly coincidental though. Even Lysander begins to wonder eventually why everyone he meets seems to be something other than they appear at first sight.

the-third-man-1

The book is about deception, self-deception and lies. And that deception extends to the reader too. There are elements of the plot that are almost farcical in their unlikeliness, and dark moments that are glossed over with such subtle humour that sometimes it takes a moment or two to decide just how seriously they should be taken. Looking at reviews of the book tells me some people have taken it completely seriously and are therefore complaining about credibility issues, especially with the ending. And they may be right. But my perception of the whole thing is that it’s a frothy construct, a parallel to the truly dark stories of wartime espionage, something imagined to shape the world in the way that Lysander wants. Having learned from Dr Bensimon how to obliterate unpleasant truths from his mind, it seems to me that the book extends this idea – so, bad things happen but Lysander, and the reader, choose not to dwell on them. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation.

Lysander had done his best to answer the questions seriously because he knew that Davison [the director of the play] had gone to Russia a year before, had met Stanislavski and had fallen under the sway of his new theories about acting and drama, and was convinced that all this extraneous material and information that one invented fleshed out the character and bolstered the text. Lysander felt like saying that if Shakespeare had wanted us to know that Angelo was well travelled or suffered from piles he would have dropped in a line or two in the play to that effect.

William Boyd
William Boyd

As always with Boyd, the writing is eminently readable – smooth, flowing, neither forced nor artificial, but with a lovely use of language. There is a lot about sex in the book, but it’s not at all graphic or icky (yes, I still haven’t got those scenes in Birdsong out of my head) – instead it takes the route of gentle mockery, highlighting the more ridiculous side of the act. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. Boyd is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I love the way he keeps a layer of gentle humour simmering beneath the surface, lightening the tone and keeping the reader slightly off-balance. He’s one of those authors who can be off-form from time to time, but when he’s on form, as he is in this one, there are few writers I enjoy more. Highly recommended.

Book 10
Book 10

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link