Monday, 17 June 2013
Yes, it sounds trite, and it goes against nearly all of my feminist instincts. I like to believe that I could find my way out of any situation without needing to be rescued. But after the month I've had a bit of rescuing would be very nice indeed, thank you very much, hence I think why Mary Stewart can be a very present help in time of trouble...
I first read Wildfire at midnight some years ago; and seem to remember that I wasn't too impressed. It didn't seem one of her better books. And lovely as the Isle of Skye is, it's hardly the exotic location that Stewart normally sets her thrillers in. However I must say that on re-reading this I loved it. It is one of her better books. Giannetta Drury decides to go to the Isle of Skye in Coronation week (so topical too - just a few weeks after the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II) to get away from the London crowds. On arrival there she discovers to her dismay that her ex-husband is also paying a trip to the lovely island; but worse than that there's a murderer on the loose, and it's someone she knows.
Stewart is expert at ratcheting up the suspense. Characterisation as ever is not brilliant, and the novel is very much a period piece with characters smoking left, right and centre, and the social mores very much of their day but to be honest this actually adds to the delight of the novel. Although I don't think anyone will be terribly surprised to discover who's the murderer, s/he is well portrayed. And Skye itself is portrayed beautifully.
This may not be great literature but as a quick fix away from reality this takes a bit of beating. Highly recommended. I do love Mary Stewart.
Friday, 14 June 2013
Anyway I've finally got back to it with my panacea to just about everything: there's nothing quite as comforting as crime fiction when you're having a bad time. In your classic crime novel chaos may reign, but at the end (usually) good will triumph and the old order will be restored. Actually the two novels I've just read are anything but perfect examples of this, but they were interesting and contrasting.
The first novel The dreadful hollow by Nicholas Blake is very much in the classic British crime novel genre. Written in the 1950s it harks back to an earlier period of the British country house murder mystery so beloved of Agatha Christie. Blake was the pseudonym of the poet C. Day Lewis - Daniel Day Lewis's Dad.
You can sort of tell that there was a poetic streak to the writer. The language is quite florid, and everything is a bit larger than life. The story itself is not a bad one. Nigel Strangeways, the private detective, is called in to investigate a series of poison pen letters in an English village, but things become a lot nastier when Strangeways' employer is murdered. The murderer is fairly easily identified if you go by the classic adage that whoever is the least likely suspect must be the murderer; but how s/he becomes the murderer is all so unlikely that there really is far too much disbelief to suspend. It's fun, there are some nice character studies, and I liked the novel enough to want to read more in the series, but as far as classic crime goes this is not one of the best.
Journeys in the dead season by Spencer Jordan was a very different kettle of fish. I found this a most unlikeable book. Weaving between an accomplice to a child murder in present-day Durham Jail, and a disturbed World War I veteran on a post-war walking tour of Leicestershire (the two characters' paths cross geographically though divided by time) the novel traces their traumatic histories through their diaries.
I just found it completely confusing. Other than the geographical connections and the fact that both characters were evidently traumatised mentally in some way I couldn't work out what the author was trying to say about the connections between the characters, why they should be connected, or what the point of the novel was. Much of the narrative of the earlier character although good to read seemed disjointed, while the later character, although undoubtedly well-written, was an unpleasant and harrowing reading experience. It was gripping - hence I guess why I made it to the end - but not pleasant, not something I would wish to repeat any time soon. Stay clear.
Saturday, 11 May 2013
As Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries go this is one of the lighter ones. Sayers, as ever, builds up a great background to the crime, the characters are well-rounded, and Wimsey is as engaging as ever. She does write herself into a bit of a corner, with two possible suspects that, one would imagine, would probably both be found guilty should the case have come to court at the time the novel was set. In a way, her later novel, Strong poison, in which Peter meets the love of his life Harriet, is an extension of The unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, demonstrating how the social mores of the day were balanced against women, and how certain behaviour could have a prejudicial influence should the woman ever be on trial for her life.
As a result the ending is rather unsatisfactory depending as it does on a free confession by the murderer, who seems to be remarkably blase about his crime and its effect on his own life. It's not her best novel, but it is clever, and there are some great character studies, most notably of young George Fentiman, still suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder years after his experiences in the Great War.
One for those who are already fans of the Wimsey canon, I think, rather than newcomers; but a great read for a rainy day.
Tuesday, 7 May 2013
The leopard is a whopper of a book weighing in at over 700 pages. It may be massive but it's a hugely enjoyable read if you can get past the first few violent pages. In Oslo there is a serial killer on the loose, Harry Hole, is hiding in Hong Kong, and the two main criminal agencies in Norway are at war with each other. Harry must be retrieved if the killing is to stop. But who is the murderer? And what is his motivation?
Moving at breakneck speed from Hong Kong to Norway to the Congo and back and forth again; this is a cracking read. It may help if you've already read Nesbo's acclaimed thriller The snowman (I hadn't) as it does have some bearing on this book, but you can get by without it.
The plot is complex, but not so intricate that it completely loses the reader. There's a truly evil bad guy, well up on the Hannibal Lector scale of nastiness; while Harry Hole is a truly Miltonic figure, a sort of Lucifer "naughty-but-nice" guy.
If you've never read Jo Nesbo before this would be a great place to start. Get past the first few video nasty style pages and you won't be able to stop reading.
Saturday, 27 April 2013
Terrorist is, I guess, Updike's attempt to answer the burning question of Americans post-9/11 "Why do people hate us", and there's no easy or even single answer. This is clear in the novel where two characters of Middle Eastern origin but born American react very differently to their native land. This is an incredibly bleak thriller. No-one is happy. Everyone is disillusioned (except for the people working for Homeland Security), and all deal with it in different ways : you go blow up the Lincoln tunnel, become grossly obese, take drugs and become a prostitute, or take the easy route and cheat on your wife.
Oddly none of the characters seem to have control over their lives; except for the masterminds behind the bomb plot, who seem to be fully in control, and manipulative as chess grandmasters.
I did find it interesting the way that religion was used in the novel. It features a lot; as you would expect, not just Islam but also Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism. Updike seems to argue fairly convincingly that religion has failed in Western society. Although they may attend church the drug takers and prostitutes receive little comfort or inspiration from their religion, while ultimately terrorists distort their religion for their own ends.
It's a bleak but gripping read with an unconvincing ending.
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Having to read books about music was a struggle at university - not easy when you're studying for a BMus. Virtually every one felt like the dreaded set book for English Lit. However much you might enjoy the book if you weren't forced to read it, having to read it suddenly took all the joy out. There were very few exceptions - I loved The inner game of music and I enjoyed books on orchestration and keyboard skills probably because they all had practical applications, but other works didn't interest me. However over the last year I seem to have suddenly started reading books about music; and, scarily, I'm enjoying them.
The latest is Alan Rusbridger's Play it again, which is a little gem. Rusbridger leads a frighteningly busy life. He's one of those sickening people who seems able to survive on 4 hours sleep a night while holding down a high powered job - he's editor of The Guardian newspaper - mixing with the great and the good, having chamber music sessions with people you would kill to know, and being a general all-round-good-guy. He's a keen amateur pianist after taking the piano up again in adulthood following a break away from the instrument.
Play it again follows him through 18 months of his life. After attending a piano summer school and being inspired by a performance, Rusbridger decides to learn Chopin's 1st Ballade. He always knew it was going to be difficult, but life as inevitably happens with adult learners, got in the way in one of the busiest years ever for The Guardian. The start of Rusbridger's relationship with the Chopin coincided with the launch of Wikileaks, while he was soon to be embroiled in the hacking scandal at the News of the World and the resulting Leveson enquiry.
However throughout this time he managed to keep playing again and again and again (yes, any piano teacher will tell you that this really does matter) and interviewed everyone from pianists such as Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough to piano makers and scientists who know all about how our brains work.
I found it fascinating. You're not going to agree with everything that Rusbridger says, but that shows what an individual experience making music is. Some technical aspects that he finds difficult I think are easy, and vice versa. The variant views of top calibre concert pianists are fascinating; and again, some you are going to agree with, some you are going to think are completely barking. I was ridiculously chuffed to discover that Stephen Hough (do follow him on Twitter, he's great fun @houghhough) and I share similar views on the 1st Ballade, although I've never quite had the guts or big enough hands to attempt THAT coda.
What I found most intriguing though were Rusbridger's thoughts on musical memory. Here we definitely have something in common. Both of us have appalling musical memories. I am completely unable to play a piece I know well unless the music is in front of me. And yet I'm an excellent sight-reader (as is Rusbridger), and I've got a very good musical memory for tunes. I know, for example, if I've seen a TV programme or film before because I can remember the music even if everything else about the film has escaped me.And yet sit me in front of a keyboard with no music, and my mind and hands go blank. I can remember nothing of all the hours of music I know that I know. I've always felt this was a handicap, and was consoled by Rusbridger's similar experience. So inspired by his own progress I tried again. I went for something simple, the first of Bach's 48 - the C major prelude. Got 2 bars in and flunked. Had a look at the music, and then played the whole of the first page. I couldn't quite believe it, it had always been there. I just hadn't known how to access it.
What I so enjoyed about this book was that it made me think. It made me reflect on my own musical experience, my experiences both as a music teacher and a musician. And it made me think about my pupils' experience of learning in a rather different way too. A fascinating absorbing read. Highly recommended. For Alan Rusbridger on Chopin see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwJKGEWarAk
Thursday, 18 April 2013
That's not to say that I think you should live on a constant pap-diet of Mills and Boon and 50 shades of grey, Variety's important, and I do think that some books you probably should read. A bit like making sure you get your daily dose of fibre, even if it's not as tasty as Double choc chip ice cream. There are two books that I have never read that I have always felt I should - the one is George Orwell's 1984. I have tried, several times, but so far have never managed to get past the rats! The other one is Aldous Huxley's 1932 classic Brave new world. And it seemed appropriate in a week that saw the passing of Sir Robert Edwards, the IVF pioneer, to read this science fiction classic.
At the time that IVF first became a reality I remember Huxley's name being bandied about. The book is mentioned whenever there is talk of cloning, or test-tube babies, or any kind of scientific experimentation with, for example, DNA. In fact though, the book is less about any of the practicalities of any of that, and more about how humans are affected by the social codes of their day. What happens if you bring into being a completely amoral society? Does it make us as humans better or worse? Or does it really not matter? And where does God come into this?
I must admit that I found reading Brave new world made me feel physically sick. It was a very uncomfortable read. At times it was astoundingly prescient. Many of the advances of science since Huxley wrote his groundbreaking work have brought the world that he was writing of very close. In Huxley's world babies are bred in bottles sans parents. They are bred and brought up within strict class and social divisions; and brainwashed into a lifestyle that appears to be incredibly free (sex without any form of committment is the order of the day) and devoid of sadness. This is contrasted with the life of a "savage", whose moral compass is much like the average twentieth century person's, and who along with happiness, will also have his fair share of sadness. Who of the two is more free?
What is truly weird about the novel though is that it has managed to be both astonishingly in advance of its time, but also caught in a cultural time-warp. Much of the "science" now seems less astounding than it did then - it may not be accurate or currently possible, but the idea that a foetus could be operated on before birth to protect it against diseases is now within the realms of possibility; while it is already possible to screen for many genetic illnesses pre-birth. Cloning can also be done, although I would suspect that most human clones would end up being quite different from each other given variant upbringings and environments.
However Huxley's certainty that there is a universal morality backed by a belief in God (not necessarily a Christian God, but nonetheless some supernatural "other") feels rather alien to me. It's odd that reading a book set in the future but written in the past should have made me realise how far we have moved away from the mind-set of the twentieth century.
Life doesn't seem as certain as the "savages" of Brave new world feel it to be. Social mores have changed, and moral boundaries are not always as obvious; while belief in God, especially a God through whom moral codes are channelled, is starting to seem more unusual rather than being the social norm. Class still dominates society, at least in the UK, but cracks in the system are becoming increasingly large.
Yet the odd thing is that in spite of the seismic shift in the way in which twenty-first century civilization views what is morally acceptable, a move towards a more humanist society, and perhaps the beginnings of classlessness; we remain in many ways the "savage". Although the sexual revolution meant that promiscuity became possible, it didn't mean that love or committment vanished ; neither does not believing in God mean that a person loses all moral compass.
Ultimately I think that Huxley was too simplistic in his beliefs. Society will inevitably change, but that doesn't mean that it automatically jettisons all that has gone before. The irony too is that even in a society undergoing sweeping changes such as the society of Brave new world, there will always be those who retain beliefs and thoughts from the "old" society, or who just want what everyone else can't have. The top dogs of Aldous Huxley's kingdom still have their Shakespeare...
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
|Emma Hamilton, painted by George Romney|
"A certain Rural District Council has recently passed a resolution which included the following phrase:—“This Council views with alarm the increase in the cost of the County Library service . …” The Chairman of the Council, in proposing the resolution is reported as having said:—“I am not objecting to the library service itself, but to the terrific cost of running it. This item ought not to be increased any further. It is not right that ratepayers should be asked to pay for people to read Forever Amber and Our Dearest Emma. It would be all right if the service was all educational, but it is not”.
And that just about sums up Our dearest Emma. Lozania Prole's take on the life of Emma, Lady Hamilton is gloriously badly written. All heaving bosoms, cads and innocent village maidens demanding to be "unhanded". It's an absolute hoot.
Occasionally however there's just the glimmer of something rather more serious. For Emma Hamilton, best known as the long-term mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson, was undoubtedly quite a woman, who led one hell of a life. Born in rural obscurity, she came to London and ended up sleeping her way around the smart set. Incredibly beautiful, she became the mistress of Charles Greville to whom she appears to have been devoted. Deeply in debt Greville came to an arrangement with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, then Ambassador to the court of Naples, he in effect sold Emma to his uncle in return for the clearance of his debts.
Although never admitted to the English court, her insignificant background and louche lifestyle being too shocking for the court (the men who made her pregnant and dumped her, or sold her, were apparently perfectly acceptable to court circles), Emma was quite a hit in Naples. She sang, led a lavish lifestyle and entertained regally. She also became close friends with the Neapolitan queen, a sister to the recently beheaded Marie Antoinette. Then one day the English fleet arrived, and the rest is history...
Badly written as the novel was I had to admire Emma. She was a feisty woman, who did what she had to in order to survive. The snobbery that had kept her away from court circles continued to impact after Nelson's death, when Emma, partly admittedly due to her own lavish lifestyle, slid into penury. And ended up being buried in a pauper's grave in Northern France.
Our dearest Emma is a dreadful read, but even that cannot detract from the life of an amazing woman. I certainly want to read more, and more seriously, about Our dearest Emma.
Wednesday, 10 April 2013
The Inspector and silence is the fifth in the series, but is easily accessible even if you haven't read any of the previous books. Van Veeteren is very much his own man, so you don't need to know an intimate family history or his cooking habits before immersing yourself in this thriller. Kluuge, a young upwardly-mobile policeman is left in charge of a country station when his superior goes on holiday. Superior's parting comment is to contact Van Veeteren if there are any problems. A series of mysterious phone calls and the discovery of a teenage girl's body, raped and murdered, means that there's a very big problem, and Van Veeteren's expertise is needed urgently. With a strange cult unwilling to divulge any information, and a renegade priest on the loose the crime needs to be solved quickly before there are further deaths.
Most of this book I enjoyed very much. As usual Van Veeteren is his lovable self; there is much in the way of black humour, and the camaraderie between the police officers is well presented. However I don't think this is the best in the series by any means. The solution to the crime is presented by a pure fluke. This may well happen in real life too, but it doesn't really work in the context of a novel. Which is odd because much of the novel is a reflection on what happens in life, and what would happen in an equivalent novel.
Having said which it deals very cleverly with prejudice. Most readers, I would suspect, would share in the prejudices shared by the police and the townsfolk. No spoiler alert necessary here as whether that prejudice turns out to be correct or not, I leave that up to the next reader of The Inspector and silence.
Monday, 8 April 2013
In some ways Gillian Slovo's Ice road has much in common with another recent read, London belongs to me. Both are novels about cities with a weight of history entering and surviving a war. Slovo's novel also has much in common with the great Russian novels Dr. Zhivago, War and peace and Life and fate. All three have in common that most Russian of preoccupations, the family unit placed against the backdrop of momentous historical events.
Slovo's novel opens in Leningrad in 1934. It follows the lives of the family of Boris Aleksandrovich, an apparatchik, working in the city council, and the cleaner, Irina Davydovna, who has a life-changing experience when she is stranded in the Arctic Circle. Boris' family are believers in the Soviet system but their beliefs are threatened as the Stalinist purges of the 1930s take hold of their city, and then war is declared...
This is a superb novel, quite rightly nominated for the Orange prize. It reads brilliantly, and easily; and masterfully tells of a very dark period in the history of that most beautiful of cities, Leningrad. It's interesting to compare it to Helen Dunmore's The siege, another novel of the siege of Leningrad. The Dunmore novel was, I think, better. And I think this was because it focused on such a narrow period that it was really able to bring out every detail. Where Slovo scores is that the novel gives a wonderful broad sweep of Soviet history - this is the human face of Orwell's Animal Farm. But the broad brushwork is not without its problems.
Anyone who is a fan of Russian literature knows that the novels can often be extraordinarily long. And after reading Ice road, which I loved, I finally understood why this is so. Ice road is no short read weighing in at nearly 550 pages long, but this is as nothing compared to War and peace or Life and fate. They are the length they are for a very simple reason. The problem with using great historical events is that they can completely overwhelm your fictional characters unless a real effort (and many pages) are expended in building them up. And it is here that Slovo's novel is lacking. There are some great characters - Davydovna and her adopted daughter, Anya, are brilliantly portrayed - but generally there is little depth. And some of the character sketching is very meagre, Boris' mistress Tanya, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out with little life of her own.
It's a shame as in many ways this novel comes the nearest to being a great Russian novel without being Russian. But as far as characterisation is concerned there is something lacking at its heart. Having said which as an historical novel I thoroughly enjoyed it. And as someone who's hoping to go to St. Petersburg within the next few years it was a fascinating glimpse into the life of that troubled but indomitable city.
Sunday, 31 March 2013
Some of the books were rather better than others. Most were pretty factual - as far as they could be with some operational information still covered by the Official Secrets Act, while other material was hidden in archives behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the books were not as blunt about the violence of war as a comparable book would be now; and some verged on the overly sentimental.
Burgess' Seven men at daybreak is occasionally over-sentimental; and verges occasionally on the fictional. There are odd personal moments in the life of the assassins when you realise that actually there is no way that the author can know any of this. This is putting a fictional spin on real events. Is this a problem? Perhaps slightly in that it can make you doubt how accurate the author is elsewhere; I believe however that generally the work is a fairly faithful retelling of what happened, as it was known at the time.
Jan Kubis and Joszef Gabcik were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the job of killing the feared Reichsprotector Reinhardt Heydrich. A particularly nasty member of the Nazi hierarchy - even Himmler was reputedly scared of him - Heydrich was one of the major drivers in proposing "The final solution".
When Kubis and Gabcik parachuted into their homeland, there were fears among the Czech government in exile that the Czechs were about to come to an accommodation with the Nazis. Assassinating Heydrich would be both a blow to Nazi power, and would reinforce the view of the Czechs as a subject but still fighting people.
What struck me the most reading this extraordinarily sad story was the innocence of those involved. They had no concept of the slaughter that would be unleashed following the assassination. And this is understandable, before there was full knowledge of the death camps, who would believe that an innocent village, Lidice, would be erased from the map in revenge? Or that the sheer terror that the Nazis could evoke would turn patriots into traitors?
For all that this is a bleak tale there is much to admire too. Courage, self-sacrifice and love remain constant even in the worst conditions. The story of the 7 men who died in a small church in Prague tells of the worst that man can do; but it's also testament to the best in the human spirit.
Saturday, 30 March 2013
I'm not generally a big fan of sequels to classic novels by other authors, and, perhaps more pertinently, I've not particularly enjoyed any of P.D. James' more recent works. However when I walked into the local library and spotted the novel I couldn't resist it.....
The thing is I really should have resisted it, because it's not very good. It's not very good on so many levels. For a start it doesn't do justice to Jane Austen. If Darcy was starchy in Pride and prejudice he is a cardboard cut-out here, the feisty Elizabeth has vanished into the Pemberley wallpaper, while all your favourite characters from the original have walk-on roles just so that every reader can feel relieved that they have caught up with what's happening in their lives; so the novel has a slightly surreal feel to it. Jane Austen meets Jasper Fford (who would have done this soooo much better).
The only character from the original who comes out well is every woman's (at least mine) favourite bad guy, Wickham, who appears gloriously rakish, and ends up in the Old Bailey on trial for his life.
The novel is often very confusing, James has stuck to what was probably a correct convention for the period, identical christian names for several different characters. Although this may be historically accurate, it didn't help the reader. There were also a few instances where I suspected some anachronisms, although I may be incorrect here.
The crime itself is weak; and P.D. James appears to have committed the ultimate sin for a crime writer, she implicates the suspect so deeply that only a death bed confession is able to exonerate him - although the jury must have been a right bunch of turnip heads to have convicted in the first place on such flimsy evidence. As though that wasn't enough we have cardinal crime no. 2 - the use of some information that the reader could not know, could have no way of knowing, and which is stoutly denied throughout the novel. This truly annoyed me as P.D. James has accused Agatha Christie of bamboozling the reader in this way - to my knowledge as a fairly widely read A.C. fan this is completely unfair, so P.D. James own use of this thoroughly irritated me.
The story was weak, the characterisation was weak, the crime was weak. It was altogether as insipid as a cup of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's Darjeeling. Hugely disappointing. A novel that does justice neither to Austen or James. Read Jane Austen, read early P.D. James, avoid this.
Thursday, 28 March 2013
It's not particularly well written. There are some cinematic action sequences that are confusing, Dark has more lives than Blofeld's cat, and the characterisation is poor. I neither believed in the motivation of the villain or thought that any of his actions were at all credible. There was a LOT of back story. Interesting enough for anyone like me who hadn't read the earlier books, but I think it would have driven a fan nuts. And the story itself, except for the central nuclear / chemical weapons theme was also pretty silly. It's all very well attempting to suspend disbelief, but can I honestly believe that two prisoners just released from the Lubyanka can drive across Russia and escape across the border with no papers, proper clothes, or money except for a small amount pinched from a toy store. The answer is obviously no, this is just plain impossible.
So I am naturally going to tell you to avoid this rubbish like the plague. Well actually no, I'm not. In fact I think you should go to the nearest library and get a copy immediately. Not for the novel, which is not that good; but for the author's notes. They made some of the scariest reading I have ever read.
Who needs horror stories when you can have the truth behind the Cold War. Did you know that there were several instances where we came to the brink of World War III? One particularly nasty moment was when President Nixon thought that it was a good idea to send a squadron of B-52s armed with thermonuclear missiles in attack formation over the North Pole as though they were about to attack the USSR; and then there was the little incident of a B-52 crashing in Greenland, not to mention Operation Able Archer, the well known NATO military exercise of the 1980s, which convinced the Russians that they were about to be attacked.
If brinkmanship, sabre rattling and some seriously crazy behaviour didn't get us annihilated, there was the little matter of large quantities of chemical weapons dumped in the Baltic Sea which periodically rose to the surface and gave beach lovers a nasty surprise. I seem to remember something similar being washed up on the coast of East Anglia last year. The novel is ephemeral, but the facts behind it are chilling. For all of us who lived in the shadow of the Cold War we can count ourselves very lucky that against all odds we are still here.
I decided recently to venture out into the world of online dating. It really does seem harder as you get older to meet someone. I guess it may be because partly you're set in your ways - d'you honestly want to be bored rigid with a guy that you suspect you're not going to like when you could be watching an episode of The good wife? Time too is a real issue, you've got a long commute to work, a long day, how easy is it to go out yet again to meet someone from a distance away. Geography becomes all important. And then there's all the appendages you collect - dogs, children, difficult neighbours. Honestly dating's a nightmare.
And as for the sites themselves. Well some I have had decent chats with the guys online even if we haven't actually met. So that's been fun in itself. It's fun flirting online, and I feel pretty confident having online conversations. Great thing if it turns awkward there's always an easy get-out: "Oh whoops gotta go, the tv just exploded...the dog's been sick...a camel has walked into the living room....6 members of the French Foreign Legion have dropped in for a cuppa"; no-one would know that you're being less than truthful!
But some sites are pretty awful - you get few matches, most of those you wonder why on earth anyone would think that you two were in any way compatible; and of those that are left few respond. It can be seriously hard on the ego.
I reckon there should be a site for dog-lovers, or (let's not be speciesist) animal lovers in general, where your pets could supply references. After all they are often the ones who know most about you; they know things that you wouldn't tell your best friend, they have seen the grumpy yeti emerging from under the duvet on a Monday morning, and the less than sylphlike figure in the shower; and they appear to love you in spite of everything.
So what would my two say about me? I'd guess they'd say I was kind-hearted. I rescue abandoned dogs even ones that are attempting to bite me (said dog has been living with me for some time, and hasn't bitten me yet), cook fish pies for poorly hounds, and am a pretty good canine nurse. I put up with a chicken thieving spaniel and laugh, even if I did threaten to take him to the taxidermist.
I talk to the dogs all the time, shout at the television, and sing the Welsh national anthem before rugby matches, Welsh try scoring involves a complicated dance around the lounge accompanied by 2 perplexed but enthusiastic hounds. I once rescued an eel (only the dogs witnessed this). They know I'm a bit mad, but they like me anyway.
I do a mean Edith Piaf impersonation, and can play Bach like an angel. I'm horribly untidy, have problems working out which end of a hoover is the front, and kill most anything electrical - what's left Alfie Spaniel will happily destroy. I'm a great frisbee thrower, sing Bob Dylan very loudly in the car because it makes the dogs wag their tails, and am great at multi-tasking - can dry two dogs at almost exactly the same time while singing Mozart. Now where's the dating website where you can put up this sort of reference?
Wednesday, 27 March 2013
Of course the irony is that London belongs to me was turned into a none-too-good British film, which is a shame as the novel is a cracking piece of work. Opening in 1938, the book follows the lives of a group of ordinary people (+ a Nazi spy in the making) living in a Victorian house that has been divided into bedsits, in Kennington, an ordinary London suburb.
As well as the landlady and her love interest the sinister pseudo-medium Mr. Squales; there are the Jossers, a family like many others in the city, Mr. Puddy, a neurotic with a passion for tinned foods and a nasty case of adenoids, Connie, the faded show-girl, and Mrs. Boon and her wideboy son Percy. Part crime-novel, part comedy, part literary fiction; this is a glorious romp through the life of the capital.
Published in 1945, it has a touch of cinema verite about it. Collins wasn't writing about a distant past but about something that was all too recent. Described in the editor's preface as the literary equivalent of a B-movie, I think the editor may have been rather harsh on Collins' literary gem.While it doesn't attain the satire of a Waugh, and its spy fiction is not of the calibre of Graham Greene (although Allo, Allo does owe a lot to it), I think that B-movies can often say a lot more about the pre-occupations of society than many a mainstream serious film. What better describes McCarthyite America than Invasion of the body snatchers or The Manchurian candidate? Similarly London belongs to me is a fascinating snapshot of British life as the country moves inexorably into war.
Fascinating, funny, a real page turner, with a hint of crime and romance; I didn't expect to enjoy this and was completely enthralled by it. Well worth a read.
Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Nobody doubts that Christie was brilliant at constructing ingenious crimes. She's also "fair" with the reader. She doesn't withhold clues or information, it's all there, it's your own fault if you don't spot it. Where she has been criticised is for her lack of characterisation, and occasionally for the simplicity of her language. The great thing about the short stories is that the lack of in-depth characterisation and the simple language work in Christie's favour here. And what really shines out is her cleverness and ingenuity. It's also interesting to spot what inspires her. Several of the Thirteen problems evidently owe their genesis to real life cases. It certainly struck me that there were some links to the Brides in the Bath case, and to some of the events surrounding the infamous Thompson / Bywaters case.
The cases range from non-murderous mysteries such as the enchanting Ingots of gold and the amusing Motive v opportunity to some really chilling murder mysteries including the clever Blood-stained pavement, Tuesday Night club and The idol house of Astarte. Each story is a little gem. They are pure Christie; and show what a clever writer she was.
This is a great collection of mysteries. Each one well crafted, with some truly stand-out tales. The Queen of Crime at her dazzling best.
Monday, 18 March 2013
Saturday, 9 March 2013
Perhaps not the barmitzvahs, as Kate Atkinson's Case histories is a bit too much of a grown-up book for that; but yes, this is one book that I would heartily recommend to anyone. It manages to be both a stunning piece of crime fiction, while also transcending genres. For anyone who's into literary fiction, and has never quite understood the allure of crime, this would be the book to give them.
The book was a Christmas present from a fellow crime enthusiast (thank you Clare!). And to be honest I wasn't sure whether I was going to enjoy it or not. I'd read Kate Atkinson's well reviewed literary novel Behind the scenes at the museum, and wasn't that wowed by it. Enjoyable enough, but it didn't make me want to read anything more by her. However after reading Police at the funeral this seemed the perfect companion piece; and it is stunningly good.
The structure is quite complex. It centres around a private eye based in Cambridge, the likeable Jackson Brodie; an ex-policeman haunted by a crime that had a very personal impact on his own life. Brodie is tasked with solving various crimes that took place between 10 and 30 years ago. The common link between them all is that they involve young girls. The novel is structured very symmetrically moving from the chronologically furthest away crime to the present and then gradually back again.
It sounds as though it should be complex and confusing. That it manages to be complex, yet reads beautifuly and is anything but confusing is a tribute to Atkinson's skill as an author. There are coincidences aplenty, but they work, they are not unconvincing. She writes brilliantly about love and loss; and her characters are beautifully formed. Cambridge is as well described as I have read anywhere; while the eccentricities of a certain section of the Cambridge population are brought lovingly and very funnily to life. I look forward with great enthusiasm to the rest of the series.
Monday, 4 March 2013
If you live in Cambridge this is a fun read, if only for working out the geography of the book. Many places are real, and those that aren't - Ignatius College, for example - can easily be fitted onto a map of the town. Ignatius, for those who live in Cambridge, would appear to be John's shifted somewhere near to Trinity Hall. While Socrates Close itself is, I suspect, modelled on the house with the Edwardian style conservatory, at the junction of Long Road and Trumpington Road. However Cambridge geography freaks aside, this is one of the very best Campion mysteries.
Albert Campion, the eccentric investigator, is called in to investigate when an old friend's fiancee becomes worried by the disappearance of her uncle. The uncle is shortly afterwards found dead, clearly murdered, and as the claustrophobic atmosphere of Socrates Close grows there are more unpleasant happenings.....
Allingham is always a hugely enjoyable writer, and this is one of her very best books. The murders are cleverly plotted, and I would defy anyone to guess the culprit. Yes, it is rather far-fetched; but Allingham depicts the dreadful atmosphere of Socrates Close so brilliantly that you truly believe in the conclusion that Campion arrives at. Characters are lovingly drawn, they're wonderfully over the top and there is a gloriously grand guignol feel to the plot; while Cambridge itself becomes an additional character in this fantastic classic crime novel. If you want to know why so many people think Margery Allingham's Campion mysteries are among the best classics of detective fiction you can do no better than read Police at the funeral.
Friday, 1 March 2013
If you're expecting a similar crime thriller to those of the excellent Temperance Brennan series, you're going to be disappointed here. Seizure is the second in the Virals series (I haven't read the first) following the adventures of Brennan's great-niece, Tory, and her pals. The story is, to put it mildly, plain daft; but it did sort of grow on me, although I don't think I'll be racing out to read the rest of the series.
Having been infected with a mutant parvo-type virus by a mad scientist in the first volume of the series, Tory and her pals have developed super-hero type powers in as much as they periodically develop the same senses as dogs or wolves (excellent scent and hearing for instance - they also bizarrely seem to develop great vision, which is certainly not characteristic of the domestic dog, nor I would suspect of the wolf). They are also into adventures, and in Seizure set off on the trail of the pirate Anne Bonny's missing treasure.
It is incredibly silly - the Famous Five (there really are 4 kids + dog) meets the Twilight generation. Perhaps because of trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible it is only on the last page that Tory's true age is revealed, making the opening of the book a disconcerting experience for anyone expecting the usual police procedural-type case. It does have it's moments, it's well paced, predictable but fun, and I suspect that the audience Kathy Reichs is aiming this at - the post-Blyton, just-starting-Christie, and, yes, into Twilight will probably thoroughly enjoy this. I think I might have preferred it as a read if it hadn't had the super-hero mumbo-jumbo, but that might be purely an age thing, or even just me.
Older readers will probably either love it or hate it. For younger teens it could be a very good introduction to the work of Kathy Reichs.
Saturday, 23 February 2013
M.E. Braddon was quite a woman. Born in 1835, she had a long and happy relationship with John Maxwell. Maxwell was in an unfortunate position, his wife was confined to a lunatic asylum; and in a period when divorce was well-nigh impossible, he met Braddon, who was then an actress. They started a relationship and had several children together before Maxwell's wife died and they were finally able to get married. That they managed to do this, and managed to keep a respectable front in an era that was renowned for its obsession with keeping up appearances says much for the character of both parties.
Maxwell had started a small magazine, and begged the 20-something Braddon to provide a serialised novel. The magazine failed, but the serialization was very popular, and Braddon was persuaded by another publisher to finish the novel, which she did in a matter of weeks. The novel, influenced heavily by Wilkie Collins' recent best-seller The woman in white, was a huge success. Thackeray nearly drove the people at the local railway station nutty waiting for his copy to arrive, while Wilkie Collins himself became a fan.
Collins' next thriller The moonstone, may be the first detective story but it owes much to Lady Audley's secret, as does his later novel, the previously reviewed Armadale, not least in its depiction of a brilliantly wicked anti-heroine. Braddon's novel would be enormously influential on many later novelists; "that woman" of the Sherlock Holmes' tales owes much to Braddon, and there would have been no Rebecca without Braddon, the similarities are so evident; and I suspect that Lord Peter Wimsey owes quite a bit to Braddon's protagonist, the seemingly effete young lawyer, Robert Audley.
If The moonstone is credited as the first true detective story, Lady Audley's secret must surely be the first amateur detective tale. Robert Audley, a young and rather lazy barrister, meets up with an old school friend newly returned from Australia having just made his fortune. Old friend is devastated to discover that his wife had passed away while he was abroad. Trying to cheer him up Robert Audley arranges a trip to the countryside to meet up with his uncle and his new wife; but when the friend suddenly disappears Audley becomes convinced that there is something fishy going on, and determines to find out the truth.
Some of the social mores and attitudes are certainly Victorian, but most of this novel could have been written easily in the last 40 years. It's the most readable Victorian novel I've ever read, it moves at a cracking pace; and the chain of evidence is beautifully developed. The final outcome is slightly weak; and I think this is the one area where its "Victorianess" shows, but generally it's as good a piece of crime writing as you'll find anywhere. Please don't be put off by the fact that it's a nineteenth-century novel, it's brilliantly readable. If I had been living in Victorian times I too would have been making a complete pest of myself waiting with bated breath for the next installment!
Friday, 15 February 2013
Understandable really as the demographic for this sort of book must be quite difficult. You're going to attract a reader who's into cats or hamsters, so presumably a fairly gentle type who likes animals, and the pet itself must be friendly unless it's attacking the bad guy in self-defence. A nice cozy murder is fine, but no Hannibal Lector. As a result they fail on two grounds. The animal is often not realistic enough, and usually wildly anthropomorphic while the crime is either boring, unbearably twee, or otherwise unbelievable.
However....I think I've finally found a series of novels that works brilliantly. The pet comes across as believable, and definitely a dog, in spite of some anthropomorphic tendencies. While the detective element is as nice a bit of gumshoery as you will meet with anywhere. Did I mention that the writing is brilliant too? Raymond Chandler eat your heart out. I'm referring to the excellent Chet and Bernie mystery series by Spencer Quinn ( Quinn more usually writes crime novels under his other name of Peter Abrahams. I haven't read any Abrahams yet, but will be doing so soon). The first in the series, Dog on it is a classy tale. Young Madison Chambliss goes missing, her estranged parents are at odds as to where she's gone. Mum is suspicious, Dad maintains that Maddie has done a runner. Bernie, the PI, is unsure who to believe; but when Chet the dog is dognapped, and Bernie himself later abducted, it soon becomes evident that Madison is at the centre of a nasty case of kidnapping.
The novel is told from the perspective of Chet, Bernie's crossbreed pooch. It is very funny. Dog life is brilliantly well observed; and there's a good, solid, and very well written mystery at the centre of the tale. You won't enjoy this if you're terrified of dogs; but if you're either keen on crime fiction or like dogs or just like something a little unusual you will love this. It was a complete joy to read from beginning to end. How refreshing to find a delightful new author with a different take on the crime novel.
Chet the dog has his own blog on all things dog : http://www.chetthedog.com/ and can also be followed on Facebook and Twitter. All of which I am now doing. But please read the novel first, it's so much more than just dog. A funny, engrossing read.
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
And a fascinating little collection they are too. Two of the stories feature Poirot, two Parker Pyne, two Harley Quin, and the final two are very different from Christie's usual output. The second gong and Yellow iris would later be expanded into novels (Dead Man's Mirror and Sparkling Cyanide), although the latter especially would be substantially altered. It's interesting to see Christie's earlier thinking about these.
My two favourites were The love detectives, which features a very cleverly arranged murder with a brilliant piece of framing. Christie is at her most humane here, and brings out the humanity of the minor characters, often overlooked in detective novels. The other lovely story is Next to a dog. Ok, it does come over as rather sentimental now in some ways, but any dog owner will probably understand the sentiments in this short story only too well; and Christie was clearly a dog lover as Terry, the dog, is beautifully realised. He rather reminded me of my own elderly dog.
The least successful to my mind was The Harlequin Tea Set, which appeared to be part-ghost story, part-detective, with cardboard thin characters, and an oddly unsatisfactory ending - where do the central characters go from here? Magnolia Blossom was perhaps the most unusual. In which Christie creates an independent female character trapped in an unhappy marriage. I did wonder here how much of Christie herself was included in the central character reflecting on her own earlier unhappy relationship with Archie Christie.
It's a fascinating set of divergent tales. Eminently readable, as you would expect from Agatha Christie, and often surprising. Well worth getting hold of.
Monday, 11 February 2013
Which on reflection is a shame as he's both a good author and a very funny one. He proves this admirably in his 2000 novel Thinks... Helen Reed is a fiction writer in mourning for her recently deceased husband, Martin, who takes up a short term post teaching creative writing at the fictional University of Gloucester. While there she meets Ralph Messenger, serial philanderer and Head of Cognitive Science. Both Helen and Ralph are, in their own ways, investigating what it means to be conscious, and its wider implications of what it means to be human. This is played out in their own lives, as their increasingly complicated relationship reveals the complexities that lie in the mind of all humans.
As you would expect with David Lodge this novel is brilliantly funny with many a laugh out loud moment. It's also surprisingly thought provoking, and at times genuinely touching. I do think that David Lodge writes about women really well. I found myself especially drawn to the central character of Helen, and her struggles with life, and changes in her attitudes towards life, religion and social mores. His men are perhaps not quite so good. They may lack the misogyny of many of Kingsley Amis' heroes, but you wouldn't want to be stuck in a lift with any of them, with the exception of the charming but wicked Ralph. Witty, funny, sexy and sad, David Lodge is even better than I remembered him.
Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Cassandra Clark's Hangman blind had everything going for it. It was a medieval murder mystery in the Brother Cadfael style. Set later, around the time of the Peasants' Revolt, it features the likeable nun-hermit Hildegard, in the first of the Abbess of Meaux mystery series. It had so much potential, some great characters, what appeared to be a well constructed mystery, a bit of political intrigue, even a tiny bit of love interest. And yet, it didn't work....
My first inkling that there was going to be a problem was when the author kept referring to Richard II as "the Lancastrian king". I know enough about history to know that Richard was no Lancastrian, he was the last of the Plantagenets, and was ousted from his throne, and died horribly, thanks to Henry IV, who was Lancastrian. So the historical background begins to unravel immediately. Now this may be my particular bugbear because I'm interested in history, but worse was to come. (Dedicated thriller readers, look away now).
We have what appears to be an attempted murder, along with several rather nasty murders. And yet Clark weaves all the threads together only to cut them through, and reveal that the murder attempt was an accident; the one murder really was a murder but doesn't appear to matter to anyone, and, hey, the odd unauthorised execution is absolutely fine too. Even odder, one character attempts to fraudulently inherit his brother's estate, and that's fine, the brother doesn't seem to mind in the least; but kidnap said brother's wife, and this is treated as a dreadful crime. I suspect that in spite of the tales of chivalry medieval lords were pragmatic creatures; and the fraud is potentially much more serious than a minor kidnapping. This novel just did not make sense; and I was left feeling so disappointed after a promising opening.
On the other hand.....Martha Grimes' Jerusalem Inn was a pure delight. I picked this up completely by accident. I thought I had read it before, and thought it was another historical mystery. Wrong on both counts! Set sometime around the 1980s principally near Newcastle and Washington, England; this was a complete delight. Richard Jury, the Scotland Yard detective, is spending Christmas visiting his relatives in Newcastle. When he bumps into Helen, a lonely woman, who volunteers at Washington Old Hall, there is a hint of romance; so Jury is understandably upset when he returns to Washington to find Helen dead; and it doesn't appear to be by natural causes....
I thoroughly enjoyed this, and am planning to read lots more Martha Grimes. It has dated slightly, but in spite of that it's a well constructed thriller with enough twists and turns to please even the crime reader who's read it all before. There's a very clever murder method, a good dose of humour, and it reads rather like an Agatha Christie brought up to date. In fact I suspect that Christie is probably one of Ms Grimes' major influences. Martha Grimes is American, which was a bit of a surprise, as the story reads (almost!) as though it's by a British writer with just the odd slip that shows that the writer was probably not originally from these shores. It's a pet hate of mine when a writer writes as though they're a particular nationality and it doesn't sound genuine; that Martha Grimes' characters sound impeccably, if sometimes rather battily, British is a great compliment to her skill as an author. And as a crime novel it's great fun.
If you can overlook some historical defects and its weakness as a crime novel Hangman Blind may be the weekend reading for you, but for a real fun detective story go for a drink with Richard Jury and friends at Jerusalem Inn.
Wednesday, 30 January 2013
As far as I know all his tales are set in 1930s/40s continental Europe, principally in Central Europe and France. The world at night is the first in a short sequence following the life of Jean Casson, a film producer based in Paris. Casson lives a pleasant enough life, divorced he has a string of love affairs, although the love of his life, the actress Citrine, evades him. Into this pleasant bourgeois existence comes the Second World War. Casson spends a brief time with the French army, and then returns to a Paris, which is in many ways changed, and yet still manages to remain recognisably itself. Life however is to become increasingly complicated for Casson when he is pulled into the world of espionage; and finally realises that at some point he must choose where his loyalties lie.
Furst's writing has often been compared to watching a film noir, and I think that's a great comparison. His world is one of shadows, of light flickering in the darkness. His characters are often complex. These are great reads, exciting storylines that propel the reader forward at a great pace. They also provide a wonderful insight into the complex history of Europe as it slides into war, and comes out the other side. But most of all he has a great sense of place.
France is described lovingly, but not sentimentally. Reading The world at night, I yearned for France: for the sunlight around the Ile de la Cite, for the bright light of Provence, and the smells of the street markets. Great compulsive reading in the class of an Ambler or a Simenon, if you haven't discovered Alan Furst yet you're in for a treat.
Monday, 28 January 2013
In many ways I guess it's one of Lawrence's more accessible books - much shorter than Women in love - and made famous of course by one of the most famous literary trials ever. Lawrence completed the novel in 1928, just two years before he died of consumption; and yet the novel manages to be wonderfully life-affirming even while the author was himself approaching his end. There was limited publication, an American edition was heavily edited, and then in 1960 came the obscenity trial R v Penguin Books. The decision of the jury, to whom the Penguin edition is dedicated, enabled the book to be published in unexpurgated form, and was, according to some people, responsible for ushering in the permissive society.
And yet I find it hard to believe that Lawrence would have entirely supported this. He was against the commercialisation of sex, the thought of sex as a commodity with no love behind it, or delight in the act itself. Set in 1928, at the midway point between the two world wars; the novel is about what it means to be human against the advance of materialism and technology. Lady Chatterley's husband severely injured in the war is unable to make love to his wife, and while his physical life is sterile, so too is his mental life, as he becomes increasingly involved with production at his local pit. Lawrence contrasts the sterile, materialistic existence of Chatterley and his miners with the fruitful, if more back-to-nature life, of Constance Chatterley and her lover.
As the novel progressed I did have some difficulty with Lawrence's rather odd take on politics. The thinking was woolly, to put it mildly, and there were some very strange attitudes towards class. But there are moments of great affection and beauty in the novel. To dismiss it as not a good novel (as has often been done) because of the occasionally clumsy writing of the sex scenes seems to me unfair. How many of us can honestly say that we are worth quoting when we are at our most vulnerable? The language shocks less now than it would have done in 1928, or even in 1960. But Lawrence was not necessarily setting out to shock. His point was the way in which language is used. He wanted to take words back to their original usage not their perversion as obscenities, by which both the words and their actions are demeaned.
There is much to admire here. Lawrence's affirmation of what it is to be human, in spite of the modern world's best efforts to undermine it, remains as relevant as ever. And his hatred of materialism seems more relevant in today's world than it probably was in 1928. It's not a perfect book, the balance is slightly out, with the first two-thirds reading much more strongly than the final third. And yet, there is something unexpectedly lovable about it; as fragile in its own way as the love between Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper.
Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Set in a London dominated by absurd religions - squid worshippers are just one of the bizarre religions on offer - Kraken follows on rather nicely from Can't be ars*d as it's sent against a background dominated by thoughts of an imminent apocalypse. When a giant squid disappears from the Natural History Museum, and a man is found a la ship-in-a-bottle at the same museum, the end-game starts for the most likely apocalypse yet. Billy Darrow, the curator who'd pickled the squid, and Dane - a kraken worshipper, join forces to stop the end-of-the-world.
There's much to enjoy in this daft read. Mieville's use of language is, as ever, glorious. Some of the characters are great, I was especially fond of the militant shabti-figure, Wati - guaranteed to make any fan of Egyptology laugh. While the two big villains of the piece, the evil Goss and his side-kick Subby are brought eerily to life. There were lovely set-piece moments too - I thoroughly enjoyed the thought of cats on picket duty outside the British Library! And it's a great, if odd, portrayal of London. The city viewed as a living breathing entity - fans of Peter Ackroyd will thoroughly appreciate this.
The problem with the overall tale though is that it's just plain daft. There are plenty of moments that are pure Harry Potter - and while they worked within the fantasy world of HP, in Kraken, which treads a fine line between reality and fantasy - a rather-more-magical-than-realist world - they just fail to convince. At times it felt as though Mieville just had too many creative ideas, and he was determined to put them all in. And this ended up dragging the pace of the story back, it was a very turgid sort of read, which probably matched the giant squid pickled for all eternity in a large tank of formalin. If you're into books about creationists trying to unevolve evolution, and men getting eaten by unpleasant sea-creatures you'll love this. If you want to read Mieville at his best try the brilliant The city and the city, but unless you love kalamari avoid this one.
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
I blame it on the Millennium, it seemed to unleash a wave of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, most of which told us that the world was about to end any day now! And it's still ongoing... according to some apocalyptically minded types we were lucky to make it to last Christmas. But it is quite extraordinary that from the late 1990s onwards a wave of bucket-list books were published - 1001 places to go before you die, 1001 books to read, films to see, fish to catch (yes, honestly!) and so on. According to Richard Wilson (not Victor Meldrew - this Richard Wilson is a comedy writer and executive producer of Have I got news for you) there's also a huge number of similar lists available on the web.
Can't be ars*d features 101 suggestions along with Wilson's usually very good and very funny reasons as to why you'd be better off not doing them. Every item on his list has featured on a bucket list somewhere (the bibliography alone makes hilarious reading - hard to believe but there really is a book called 101 things to do in Louisiana before you up and die). He is very very funny, laugh out loud funny; but there's also a more serious side - he muses on the advantages / disadvantages of tourism, pokes gentle perceptive fun at the latest restaurant trends, and argues against cultural imperialism.
It's completely hilarious, and also surprisingly thought provoking. I suspect that it's a book that will appeal more to a British audience - I may be wrong, but I suspect that there isn't a big market for Bruce Forsyth jokes in Chicago; although there are some themes that are undoubtedly universal. I was quite surprised to discover that I'd already done 25% of the things that the author would encourage you not to do - although I too had given up on War and Peace.
One slightly surprising side-effect of the book for me was that it encouraged me to make my own bucket list. I did this light-heartedly, deciding that anything could go on it whether it was completely unlikely to happen or not. In fact it turned out to be an interesting exercise, some of the "wants" were unsurprising - places I'd wanted to visit for years, things I'd wanted to do. But it did sort of surprise me what was important to me, and in a funny sort of way it turned out to be a stimulating exercise.
And that really is just like Can't be ars*d - in spite of the title it does manage to be both funny and stimulating.
Monday, 14 January 2013
Of course it was very much a product of its time. The middle-class awash with money, property prices soaring in the UK, but property on the Continent staying relatively low, who wouldn't want to move abroad? and make money from writing all about it...The problem is though that some wrote about it so much better than others, which brings me to Annie Hawes' Extra virgin : amongst the olive groves of Liguria.
Annie and her sister went to Liguria (the area of Italy just bordering France on the Mediterranean coast) in the 1980s. It was just going to be a summer job working in the burgeoning rose-growing industry. But when they're offered a rural property at a ridiculously low price, they succumb, and end up living permanently in Liguria.
The book received generally rave reviews on Amazon, but I'm afraid it left me rather cold. It's entertaining enough, there's the odd fact about the area which is interesting; and Annie generally describes the locals both with respect and affection. But I've read it all before - there was nothing here that I thought was really unusual or different or gave me a completely new insight into the life of an Italian villager.
I also found it confusing that the time line appeared to leap backwards and forwards, sometimes dizzily leaping forwards a few years and then back again for no particular reason.
If you've never read one of these "fish out of water" books before, this would be a pleasant enough place to start - but it's nowhere near as good as Peter Mayle, or (for the American insight) Michael Sanders' From here, you can't see Paris.
Tuesday, 8 January 2013
Ashenden's been sitting on my bookshelves for some time, then over Christmas I saw Hitchcock's early thriller Secret Agent, featuring a lovely cast including John Gielgud, then at the height of his fame on the London stage, the ever beautiful Madeleine Carroll, and a gloriously over the top performance from Peter Lorre, who had yet to make the move to Hollywood. Secret Agent, as you've probably guessed by now is based on Ashenden.
This book was a surprising treat, I absolutely loved it. It's a great spy story, and those later top-drawer spy writers Ian Fleming (R., Ashenden's boss is the spitting image of the later M), John Le Carre and Alan Furst, all owe a debt of gratitude to Maugham. Often laconic "'He's known as the hairless Mexican.' 'Why?' 'Well, he's Mexican and hairless.' 'Just so.'" a great mixture of humour and gung-ho adventure along with Maugham's gift for descriptive backgrounds makes this a fun read with the occasional serious moment. Written in 1928, it's in some ways a period piece but also manages to be vibrantly alive and believable.
One of the reasons it's so successful is that it is really a collection of short stories joined together by the central figure of Ashenden, the spy. So Maugham is free to go off in different directions and experiment with slightly different kinds of writing. A must-read for any spy afficionado, and great fun. Grab it if you can.