A little previous, but books of my year……………

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Someone in my on-line book club suggested we compile a Top Ten list of the fiction, and the non-fiction books we read this year – and re-reads counted too, if the re-read was this year. This gave me much happy thinking time, though I was pleased that we were satisfied with just the two lists, rather than ranking WITHIN those lists, else the arguments with myself and the shufflings up and down could have taken me into daffodil time next year. All, being books I loved, were reviewed on here, follow the links for those gushy, enthusing reviews

So, in no particular preference order but more or less the ‘as I read and reviewed’ order here are, Ta Daa………..The Fictions

The Wall1) The Wall. Marlen Haushofer. This has nothing to do with Pink Floyd, though it was also made into a film!

Marlen Haushofer was an Austrian author who wrote this rather extraordinary post-apocalypse book in the 60s, later made into an equally wonderful movie, prompting the welcome reissue of the book.  It has been mis-described as an eco-feminist Utopian novel. Eco-feminist it may well be, but some people have a remarkable idea of Utopia, is all I can say!

2) Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. This is a chiller/thriller set in the far far Dark MatterNorth. And how I love books with a setting in the freezing cold of Nordic isolation. Beautifully written, Madness, class and utter isolation and things which can’t be named, set in the 30s. Genuinely terrifying, a one for the short days as long as there isn’t a power failure!

Night Film3) Night Film Marisha Pessl What to say! Donna Tartt’s michievous younger sister (not really, but that is what her writing is like) She has Tartt’s intelligence, but is infinitely more playful. Here are noir god games and solving a mystery all hooked in with indie film making

4) Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a beautifully All The Light UKwritten book, with some ‘magical realism’ touches, set in the second world war in Paris and Berlin The central character is a young blind French girl, and a rather gentle young boy in Germany who is swept up by the Nazi machine, into being part of the invading army. The story is told in alternate chapters by the two protagonists, and is wondrous, heart wrenching and stunning

The Magus - John Fowles5) The Magus John Fowles I have been reading and re-reading this every 5 or 10 years. This year was one of those years, as reading the Pessl sent me enjoyably back to it. Iconic book, hugely influential. A literary page-turner, I recognised its influence in the Pessl book. Yes it has the flaws of the time, a rather patriarchal elitism but Fowles a novelist who was absolutely extending the literary form, whilst creating a page turner. This was also made into a film. A dreadful one.

6) Bodies of Light Sarah Moss. I’d read her Bodies of Lightearlier Night Waking, with some reservations, but she had fallen off my radar, till a book club member  raved about this one. Which grabbed me without any reservations. Indeed it sent me on to further Moss reads. Stunning. Feminism and much more 1850s-1880s and the fierce women who fought for us to get education

The Visitors7) The Visitors Rebecca Mascull This might almost be my favourite of the year because it took me so by surprise. Nearly missed it as the dust-jacket makes it look a bit marshmallow. Anything but. Set mainly in Kent and South Africa, at the time of the Boer war, the central character is a wonderfully fierce deaf-blind girl, and how. I’m chomping at the bit for Mascull’s second book to come out in 2015. With this book, she joins the ranks of writers whom I find myself on literary crusade for. I was so impressed by Mascull that offered the chance to interview her by the publsiher, I jumped

8) The Bone Clocks David Mitchell Not his best, but I can never The Bone Clockspass a Mitchell book by, and he always leaves me thinking hard. Some real pyrotechnics, a mash-up of times, places, genres and some absolutely stonking writing A writer who seems to have a whole army of voices inside him. A huge novel in scope, style and genre-bending. Some of the sections miss the mark, but others are extraordinary. He hits the bulls-eye so unerringly that the fact that sometimes he clumsily breaks things is forgiveable

flanagan.jpg9) The Narrow Road To The Deep North Richard Flanagan The Booker this year, and one of those lacerating reads about war – this time Australian POWs in Japanese camps, and the building of the Burma railway, but there is much more to it than that, despite the real horror there is a huge sense of humanity and tenderness rolling through it. Curiously, though I have no stomach at all for the inventions of gore, I continue compelled to read books about the evidence of our atrocities. Writers making us look into the mirror of who we are, for good and ill.

10) This is Life Dan Rhodes As a complete break to my This Is Lifepreferred diet of heavy lit fic, this is a delightful bubble, set in the art and performance world in Paris. it’s some kind of romantic fantasy, fabulously written, audacious, utterly joyful and good-humoured and I grinned, smiled and laughed my way through it, which makes a change from weeping my way through a book!

Non-Fiction
I was fairly shocked to see that I hadn’t read that much non fiction this year – and a lot of the books I had read (or re-read) were biographies or autobiographies, particularly – most of which were written by fiction writers. Even so, I did have to work hard to whittle down to 10 specials. I think the autobio subject matter reflects the fact that I am inveterately curious about individual stories, and the way one life can illuminate many. I need to be grabbed by the warmth and immediacy of heart, and the felt sense of in-the-gut truth, as well as the wrestles and weighings up and judgement of mind. So, reflections and stories written by writers, about aspects of their own lives are more likely to engage me than a more academic and distanced study. It also probably illustrates that though i have been through academia, I lack the intellectual rigour of academia, and remain greedy for the subjectivity of individual story

to the river1) To The River Olivia Laing A combination of nature writing (which I love) and writing about literature (which I also love!) Laing walked the length of the River Ouse (where Virginia Woolf drowned herself) there is a lot about Woolf, and other writers and artists with a connection to the area, but also the history, geography and culture of those connected to where the river runs. And as with my love of the immediate story of the author within the subject (providing you resonate to the authorial voice) I like Laing’s relationship to her subjects

2 A Spy Among Friends Ben Macintyre This is the closest I get, in this list, to A Spy Among Friendsconventional biography, where the author does not engage in relationship with his subject matter but tells a story (Kim Philby’s) via traditional journalistic research, whilst standing outside the subject (which of course we can never completely do, as the writer/researcher of course arranges material and writes from their own subjectivity

foreign13) Foreign Correspondence Geraldine Brooks Brooks is an Australian author who sets out to discover the penpals she had corresponded with from the 60s, some 30 years later. Lots about history and culture across the world. Its a bit of a detective investigation into her own past, and the lives of those penpals. Full of individual life stories.

5) My Salinger Year Joanne Smith Rakoff. Rakoff worked in an old My Salinger Yearfashioned literary agent’s – Salinger’s agent and this is a lovely meander around the changing face of publishing, a great book for someone who loves reading about writing, publishing, and all things bookie.

Listening to Scent6) Listening to Scent – An Olfactory Journey Jennifer Peace Rhind Okay, a brilliant book about an area I specialise in, lots of stuff about chemistry and developing olfactory skills. I was delighted to find a book which taught me a huge amount of new information in an area I think I know quite a lot about! Probably not so compelling for wider audiences though

7) The Spirit In Aromatherapy Gill Farrar-Halls. Another ‘with my The Spirit In Aromatherapyprofessional hat on’ This time, it’s actually more about the nature of the therapeutic relationship than anything else, even though the title says its about the oils. She’s been a Buddhist most of her life, and there’s a lot of very pertinent stuff about how that has profound effects on how the client/therapist relationship cab be handled. I do like books written from a Buddhist perspective which are not overtly ‘about’ Buddhism

Limonov jacket8) Limonov Emmanuel Carrere Back to the territory I normally keep for fiction – disturbing ambiguity. Limonov is an extremely complex,Russian political activist, criminal and writer, often deeply unattractive in some of his actions and ideologies. Carrere is a campaigning French journalist, of Russian ancestry, and uses Limonov’s life to explore Russia in the twentieth century – and also approaches his subject matter from a Buddhist perspective. It’s not a traditional biography, since the writer inserts his own autobiography into the mix

9) How to be a Heroine Samantha Ellis Wonderfully witty account by Ellis, a playwrightHow To Be A Heroine, of the fictional women who shaped her. It’s another book about reading, the power of literature and would make a great book club read, as you can’t help arguing with Ellis about YOUR favourite heroines which she missed out!

cider-with-rosie10) Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee (this was a re-read) In some ways reading the Olivia Laing sent me back to Lee, who also later set out on an epic walk, this is about the Gloucestershire he left, and is one of those wonderful books where the connection to ‘what it means to be English’ is passionate and beautiful, a sense of landscape and culture, a recording of ways of life and community  which were already dying when Lee recorded them, in the 30s. A pride and ownership of the roots to time and place, without jingoism

So…………did any of these make your ‘best reads of the year’ lists? And, as pertinently, will any of them have a chance of making your 2015 lists!

Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square

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A subtle, tragi-comic tale of a good man undone by adoration, ‘in darkest Earl’s Court’

Hangover SquarePatrick Hamilton is a not-quite-forgotten, admired author, who specialised in getting inside the heads of those who were disaffected, on-the-margins, or even, dangerously psychopathic – he was a stage and film writer, as well as author, and responsible for the highly charged, tightly wound, thrillers of sinister psychopathology, Gaslight, and Rope

Hangover Square was one of his most iconic novels. Set primarily in London on the very edge of, and then just at the start of, the Second World War, this follows the fortunes (pretty well unstoppably downwards) of George Harvey Bone, a not quite impoverished, weak willed man with a severe drinking problem, some undiagnosed dissociative mental health problems, and a dangerous 2 year infatuation with a hard, vicious untalented actress.

Bone is an unlikely subject to capture a reader’s compassionate interest, yet he does, because despite the fact that he is someone of a definite wasted life, a bit of a bumbling, naïve and pathetic character, he is nevertheless like a lost and vulnerable puppy, possessed of great sweetness of temperament, despite his irritating flaccidity of purpose

Netta, the object of his adoration, is a beautiful and completely amoral woman, without any charm, wit, intelligence, talent or likeability. Her one asset is her extraordinary beauty, which is clearly barely even skin-deep. Whereas Bone is a marshmallow, ineffectual, likeable drunk, Netta, and her closest crony, louche, spiteful Peter, are hard, aggressive, deeply unpleasant drunks.

The trajectory of the story is George Bone’s worsening mental health problems, and the hopeless infatuation with Netta, who is completely uninterested in George, in any way, except as someone to sponge money from, and exploit.

This should be an unbearably depressing book, but instead, there is a kind of gentle humour in George, a puppyish enthusiasm and a potential for excitement and joy which carries the reader along, despite the awareness of the grim background of war on the horizon, the predictable and nasty leanings towards Fascist sympathies espoused by Netta and Peter, and George’s inability to free himself from the nest of vipers he can, in some ways, clearly see.

Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.

Perhaps Hamilton’s ability to make us feel George from the inside, and care about him, too, comes in part from what must have been a certain self-identification in the writer, as Hamilton himself had a disastrous relationship with alcohol, child of an alcoholic father, he died in 1962 of liver cirrhosis. He was a writer who definitely identified with the underdog, the marginalised, and the powerless in society.

Hangover Square was made into a much altered film, setting it in London at the turn of the twentieth century (hence, completely losing the political background which is an integral part of the book’s darkness) and making George Bone into a composer/musician. Effectually, a much more romantic melodrama, more Hollywood, more clichéd. Hamilton wisely did not buy into the hackneyed cliché of the tortured artist in his book. George Bone a much more everyday, genteel, impoverished, distinctly ordinary person. Weak, but essentially decent.

J.B. Priestley in his introduction to the the Penguin Classics edition of Hangover Square, describes Hamilton as one of the best ‘minor novelists’ writing in the interwar and beyond years. And lest that seems like damning with faint praise, it is I think fair, admiring praise.

However………I should caution anyone who gets this edition, with the Priestley Patrick Hamiltonintroduction to AVOID reading that introduction if you have never read Hangover Square, as foolishly, in the closing paragraph of his otherwise pertinent and interesting introduction, he reveals one of the major spoilers. (I was re-reading, so not a problem)

Hangover Square Amazon UK
Hangover Square Amazon USA

Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen – The Rabbit Back Literature Society

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A most weird, wondrous, playful, dark and fantastical tale. Beware of writers bearing gifts.

The Rabbit BackFinnish writer Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen has written a creepily seductive, thought provoking, alluring and wickedly mischievous book, which might have special appeal for writers, since writers, aspiring and world famous, and the nature of fiction itself, is the subject matter.

Books have started to mysteriously change in Rabbit Back, a small town in Finland. Rabbit Back is also home to a world famous children’s writer, Laura White, who writes children’s’ books about a dark and mysteriously peopled world. Inevitably, being a world famous Finnish children’s’ author writing about invented, strange creatures which have a fascination for adults as well as children, there are obvious possible parallels that Tove Jansson may have been the initial inspiration for Jaaskelainen.

Laura White, it transpires, gathered around her a group of children, with the aim of grooming them into becoming writers. All are now grown, and famous authors in their own right.

However…there was a dark mystery behind Laura White’s creation of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, and its small, select recruited members. And the group also have an arcane, and somewhat deadly practice – The Game, which has evolved over the years, and exists for a set purpose of furthering the craft, practice and ritual of writing itself.

Kullevos, Curse by Akseli Gallen- Kallela (1865-1931) Inspired by the Kalevala, Karelian and Finnish national epic poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot

Kullevos, Curse by Akseli Gallen- Kallela (1865-1931) Inspired by the Kalevala, Karelian and Finnish national epic poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot Wiki Commons

The membership of the society has been restricted to 9, for many decades. Until a young teacher, with a recently published story, is invited by White to become the tenth member. Ella Milana, as well as becoming the newest member of the Society, is a keen literary researcher, and has discovered the strange changes appearing in classic texts.

Milana has agendas of her own to pursue when something cataclysmic happens at the party which secretive, revered, Laura White gives, to introduce Milana as the tenth member, to the other nine, and to the wider, glittering celebrity world who accord White some kind of literary goddess status.

And this is Finland, where a belief in dark elementals may be more widespread. Snow, and the Far North, do weird and wonderful things to imagination

Forging of The Sampo by  Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Wiki Commons.

Forging of The Sampo by
Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Wiki Commons.

So, we have some strange conglomerate of a David Lynch Twin Peaks type clever weirdness, a crime investigation, an arcane, cultish group of highly intelligent, ruthlessly ambitious-in-the-pursuit-of-their-craft writers, Folkloric background, and a wonderful, wickedly dark and playful imagination. Not to mention a clear love of literature, and its power, and many reflections on just why writers write, who they are, how they do it, and how and why we read.

Everybody comes to the library naked. That’s why they come here-to dress themselves in books

It’s a joy. It’s a gem. It’s dark, spooky, not completely explained by reason. And I Pasi Ilmariwant more from Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen. There seem to be a couple of short stories translated into English, but not, at the moment, any second novel. Keep writing Pasi Ilmari, keep writing.

The translation must also be commended (I assume, not knowing Finnish!) because I had no sense of the clunky, as happens when translation is done by those who are too literal, and miss some kind of ‘writerly sensibilities. So I hope translator Lola M. Rogers is also making sure that Pasi Ilmari is steadily working on another book.

Reality was a game board for all of humanity to play on, formed from all human interaction. You could in principle make it up out of anything you wished, provided you all agreed on it. But it was easiest if everyone used square pieces, because they would all fit together and form a seamless whole

The Rabbit Back Literature Society Amazon UK
The Rabbit Back Literature Society Amazon USA

Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart

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Finally, alluring, disciplined, properly disturbing Gothic. Shepherd does The Undead proud!

The Pierced HeartI am not, by any means, a fan of the vampire genre, which seems to have drowned in a sea of its own overdone gore.

However………….when a writer whose work I admire happens to write a book which features the pointy teethed, sanguinary creatures, that might well draw me in. The writer, not the genre.

Lynn Shepherd is a writer with a wonderful feel for nineteenth century literary fiction, primarily using classics of that period, as springboards to twist and skew and refocus, into detective novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, made a brilliant reversal of class and fortune out of Fanny Price, an Austen heroine who seemed far more pliant and submissive than most of Austen’s bright, intelligent women.

Her second, Tom All Alone’s (published in the States as The Solitary House) forayed into Bleak House.

Her third was a slight departure. Her central character, private detective Charles Maddox investigates events in the household of the Shelley/Godwin families. I found this third book more troubling, as she made free with the lives of real people, inventing unpleasantness around them. A Treacherous Likeness Like her second, this had another title in the States, as A Fatal Likeness

With her fourth, she returns to the territory of an original classic text, and writing something which her imagination takes her into a kind of parallel course with.

One of the several versions Johann Heinrich Fuseli painted of his iconic  The Nightmare. Wki Commons

One of the several versions Johann Heinrich Fuseli painted of his iconic The Nightmare. Wki Commons

Having already stated I do not find the vampire genre appealing, I must also say I avoid ‘pastiches’ like the plague, because generally the original does the whatever so much better. The exception, is where something is written which is substantially different, substantially true to itself, and where acquaintance with the original can only delight and enhance reading of the new work – which, however, could PROPERLY be enjoyed on its own substantial merits, without any prior knowledge of ‘the original.

And, I must say, that knowing Shepherd had used the Bram Stoker novel, and her love of nineteenth century literature, and her understanding of place, time, culture and language of the period, and a kind of ability to inhabit the world of the original, I bought this book (not available as a download) eagerly, knowing I would not be disappointed.

And I wasn’t, I absolutely wasn’t. It becomes the fourth ‘vampire’ book I can read – and re-read – Stoker himself, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Marcus Sedgewick’s rather more scientific imagining A Love Like Blood and now, what Shepherd has done.

Her research into historical events (The Great Exhibition, scientific investigations, thinking, and inventions) not to mention her inhabitation of Stoker’s text, is prodigious – but lightly handled. I was swept up feverishly turning pages, and it was only in the pauses between reading that I thought about that research, that plotting, that characterisation, those little embroiders of the text that are sly nods to the original.

Crystal_Palace_-_Queen_Victoria_opens_the_Great_Exhibition

Louis Haghe Painting. Crystal Palace – Queen Victoria Opens the Great Exhibition, 1851. Wiki Commons

Inevitably, there IS gore (well, it is within the subject matter) and, yes, it is rather shocking and horrid, but, she really doesn’t luridly indulge the X-rated aspects. And the violence is also plausible, (sadly) in its manner

It’s quite a short book – 233 pages, and is – magnificent.

What I particularly love, love with Shepherd, is her delectable, precise use of language, her structure is beautifully measured, there is a real craft here, which does remind me so much of the more formal language of nineteenth century literature

I found it hard to believe so great a tempest could be coming, seeing the white mares’tails high in the pearly blue sky and the wide sweep of sea barely rippling in the breeze, but the man had some knowledge that I did not possess, for by sunset the clouds had amassed into great heaving battlements of every colour –red, violet, orange, and green, flaming at the west in the dying sun, and darkening behind us as the storm gathered pace. We could see far ahead in the distance, the lights of the little town my father told me was our destination, and as the wind began to rise the captain rigged the ship as high as he dared, desperate to outrun the storm and make port before nightfall. But there was no time. There was a moment of deathly stillness, when the wind seemed to die in the sails………I could hear sea-birds wailing like lost spirits above our heads

Yes, that is right, it’s the arrival, in an unholy storm, by sea, to Whitby

There are several stories going on here. Charles Maddox, like Jonathan Harker, visits the ‘Dracula character’ in his castle home in the Austro-Hungarian empire. And the bulk of the novel is written through the voice of the omnipotent author, describing Maddox’s thoughts and actions.

1797 Robertson Phantasmagoria Capuchine Chapel Paris. Wiki Commons

1797 Robertson Phantasmagoria Capuchine Chapel Paris. Wiki Commons

There is also a parallel story involving ‘Lucy’ the daughter of a kind of stage magician, performing magical acts, and capitalising on the growing success and fashion for spiritualism, in the wake of the American Fox Sisters. Lucy’s story is told in her journal, and is in the first person (from which you can deduce, Lucy’s is the arrival in the storm)

Fox Sisters, Wiki Commons

Fox Sisters, Wiki Commons

There is also the omnipotent authorial voice revealing herself to be the self-conscious writer of this book, occasionally making mentions of scientific and social advances which will come in time. This is not in any way intrusive (well, not to me, anyway) and adds another layer, reminding us that this is a referential piece, springing from an established literary heritage, and that writing itself has a history, and that there are cultural fashions in writing.

Shepherd is playful, and she plays well; I like the way she teased me into actively thinking about what I was reading, even whilst my heart was in my mouth and I was being swept along by the ‘what-next, what-next’ of narrative. I needed to be slowed down, to appreciate the detail

There is an afterword, which also explains how her springboard for this book was not only Bram Stoker’s text, but some real history. And I was pleased to note that no REAL persons were harmed in the telling of this story

There is, also a genuine shocker of a climax. One which is ultimately most satisfying

Curiously, as mentioned, this book is not available as digital download in the UK lynn_shepherd(though Statesiders can get it in this format) It was also not released as an ARC ahead of publication either for NetGalley, UK, or in Vine, UK. Sadly, I suspect Shepherd and her publishers have kept things very low profile indeed over here, following a rather injudicious comment Shepherd made about another author some time earlier this year or last, which attracted loyal fans of the other author out in droves to negative vote on all her previous works. She is a very fine writer, and I hope will be able to recover the growing appreciation she had had from readers, prior to her foolish outburst.

The Pierced Heart Amazon UK
The Pierced Heart Amazon USA

Giles Waterfield – The Hound In The Left-Hand Corner : A Novel

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A waspish, witty romp Behind The Scenes At The Museum

Hound In The Left Hand CornerThis is a lovely comedy piece set within the Art and Culture World.

It is a Very Important Day at the BRIT Museum, where a sumptuous new exhibition is to be launched. Major deals are also being made by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, a Property Magnate desperate for a peerage.

The star piece of the exhibition is a little known work by Gainsborough, which comes with a mysterious curse, and an equally mysterious history

Battle lines are set out between high art and high finance, high art and populism, academia and stylistic sound-bites.

He worries about the Nowness of Now. Such a depressing concept, he reflects, his lip rising with an academic’s disdain. Absurd name, too. Nowness will be a celebration of Britain today `reflecting the volcanic dynamism inherent in the twenty-first century’. This breathy tag sometimes runs through his head as he struggles with leaden directives from his paymasters in government.

Think a combination of the slap-stick, magical, sexually confusing world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, combined with the wit and social setting of a P.G. Wodehouse novel

Add a touch of histrionics with a very prestigious catering company and a chef desperate to become the latest TV Chef God, a smidgeon of sadism from the Museum’s Head Of Security with more than a yen to run the Museum like a Police State, and several sets of potentially confused lovers.

And then there is the alarming prospect of an invasion of 400 escaped lobsters. Not to mention the possibility of near death by drowning in raspberry coulis.

And a dog whose tail just can’t make up its mind which way to point

Mr and Mrs William Hallett. And of course their dog. by Thomas Gainsborough.

Mr and Mrs William Hallett. And of course their dog. by Thomas Gainsborough.

This is a delightful piece of puffery, which nonetheless says some very pertinent things about a society structured on spin, where neither the bread nor the circuses are that much to be celebrated. And where the course of true love never runs smooth……except, sometimes.

The novel fairly zips along, taking place on Midsummer’s day 2001, and lasting for 288Giles Waterfield pages, with short, fairly bite sized chapters. I read most of it smiling happily and every now and again breaking out into snorts, barks, and yaps of laughter (well, that hound does feature rather importantly)

The Hound In The Left-Hand Corner Amazon UK
The Hound In The Left-Hand Corner Amazon USA

Michael Russell – The City Of Strangers

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City Of Strangers

The City of Strangers is the second novel of a political/crime thriller series, featuring an intelligent, complex, member of the Garda, Stefan Gillespie, his family, and various professional colleagues in Ireland, during the lead up, and later, within, the period of the Second World War.

The City of Shadows, the first novel, felt like a breath of fresh air, combining a crime novel moving beyond the merely domestic, set in the context of a volatile history, geography, and cataclysmic change looming on the horizon. This was Dublin, in 1934, and the background was the inexorable rise of Nazi ideology abroad. The possibility of war was looming. Ireland had been through some great changes, and there were those who thought that there was mileage in the dangerous adage that ‘my enemy’s enemy’ (Britain, the idea of a coming war with Germany) might make some kind of friend.

It is now 1939. That war has indeed started, and Britain needs America, currently neutral, as is Ireland, to come into that war.

Back in Ireland, a woman has been brutally murdered, and her son, gone to America as part of Michael MacLiammóir’s company performing a play by Shaw, needs bringing back to trial. Meanwhile, no one in the high-ups wants this bad publicity on the eve of the prestigious World Trade Fair, happening in New York, as each country is of course engaged in splendid PR for itself.

Trylon and Perisphere 1939 New York World's Fair, Commons

Trylon and Perisphere 1939 New York World’s Fair, Commons

Gillespie is the man to send, both for his discretion and his ability to keep a clear and intelligent head.

But there is a lot more, of greater complexity, going on. Many German Americans and Irish Americans want to keep America out of the war. Roosevelt is edging closer to entering that war. There are various Irish Nationalist Groupings who are forming connections with German Nationalists. Some Americans of Ethiopian origins are also interested in the European war possibly leading to an end to the domination of the British empire in Africa. Some in the Catholic Church see Germany as a saviour against Communism. And there are some even stranger bedfellows, with some mobsters very much on the side of the angels, working against a growing anti-semitism, fostered by the various reactionary alignments.

There is a wonderfully twisting, tense storyline going on, as Gillespie tries to make sense of what he seems to have stumbled into, and discovers the many layers of subterfuge going on. Espionage, political machinations, shady alliances, this is a real page turner.

Okay, there may have been one too many ‘saved from a terrible fate in the nick of time by the arrival of the cavalry’ (and the uniform the cavalry was wearing, was at times remarkably unexpected) but the author must be forgiven, since he doesn’t betray character.

And, at the end, I was absolutely delighted to discover that it very much looks as if Michael Russell author photothere will be more, as the war bites deeper, and, no doubt, machinations in high places from those with a variety of reasons for wanting alliances to be made, or broken, continue

The City Of Strangers Amazon UK
The City Of Strangers Amazon USA

Colm Tóibín – Nora Webster

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“It was all over and would not come back”

Nora WebsterColm Tóibín is a writer with an astonishing ability to write from inside the minds of women. He focuses particularly on writing beautifully complex women who are in some ways held back from really flowering into their full potential, because society at large has inhibited this, and they have, on the outside at least, conformed to those strictures.

Nora Webster, the eponymous central character, is a woman from a small town, Enniscorthy in County Wexford (where Tóibín is from), who has recently been widowed. Her teacher husband, Maurice, interested in political debate, more outgoing than Nora, has died from a degenerative heart condition. Nora has her own grieving to do, and also concerns about her 4 children, two daughters, one almost at the end of her teacher training, one about to enter tertiary education, and her two younger sons, the eldest nudging adolescence, one still very much a child. It is the late 60’s, and feminism is beginning to seep into wider consciousness.

Tóibín explores the fact that though relationships enrich us, they also inhibit a different development which might have happened. Most beautifully, with warmth, compassion, and a lovely humour he leads us into Nora’s journey through grief. But Nora also follows a half yearned for, half-resisted growth into independence and change, as she discovers that she has abilities, opinions, gifts and desires which she had subsumed beneath the role of being a wife and mother within a loving marriage. Now, she is the one who must make decisions, and some of these are for her own happiness, not only the happiness of her children.

Living in a tight knit community, where everyone knows each other, and people inhabit specific places and roles, friends, family and neighbours may be wonderfully warm and caring, but sometimes, as Nora finds, that care may be stultifying, despite coming from a well-meaning place. Though superficially she is a woman fairly conventionally within her milieu, what bubbles, sometimes with difficulty, free, is a more ornery, passionate, highly intelligent, stubborn and feisty woman.

In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live

From small beginnings, making momentous decisions such as selling the family holiday home, getting a fairly menial clerical job, and even getting a haircut and colour which others think is more suitable for a younger woman, Nora grows and changes.

Wonderfully, Tóibín doesn’t turn her into an angel; she is at times wilful, stubborn, tactless, and selfish – in other words, a very real and authentically human person. And part of the great pleasure of this warmly written book is that though loss, pain, grief are at the heart of it, there is a rich enjoyment, the deep and ordinary pleasure in life – in the day to day, the buying of an expensive dress and feeling grand in it, as well as the finding of transcending, deeper pleasures, such as music which stirs the soul.

This is in many ways a very simply written, accessible book, but its simplicity is extraordinarily skilful. Tóibín is a master story teller; one so good that he creates the illusion that to write like this is utterly effortless.

I was happily pointed towards this by fellow blogger FictionFan. Though we can find Colm Toibinthat what one loves the other hates and vice versa, this one at least left me purring as loudly as it left her, as you will discover if you read her review

I received this as a copy for review, from the publisher, via NetGalley. Many thanks

Nora Webster Amazon UK
Nora Webster Amazon USA

Eric Ambler – Journey Into Fear

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The delights of becoming further acquainted with the Turkish Secret Police, circa 1939/1940

Journey Into Fear CoverEric Ambler represents the art of writing a good, taut, spy thriller, which also instructs beautifully about time, place, politics and character, extremely well.

Having recently re-read The Mask of Dimitrios, I thought I’d take a little saunter through some of his other books, recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, delightfully available again.

Ambler, a writer of Left sensibilities, is wonderfully free of the bedrock of Anti-Semitism which rumbled under some other writing of the time. There was a general Zeitgeist of unconscious, received, racism, until the horrific events of Holocaust began to make some question their inherent attitudes. This is not to say that those on the left were of necessity free from this, just that Ambler is clearer about ascribing venality, brutality and shadiness to individuals, rather than to races.

He’s not a writer who hangs around on description, but one who is economical and taut, whilst, it seems, fairly effortlessly describing what the reader needs in order to believe place, time, idea, narrative, character and relationship.

This particular book once again pits someone who is innocent of perfidy and derring-do, into the heart of a world where murder is not just local, individual, but is swept up in the fates of nations.

Graham is an engineer. His speciality is in high powered long range guns, and he is in Turkey helping development of missiles in the early stages of the Second World War. Turkey at this point had neutrality, though there were certainly factions wishing for closer association with the Allied Powers.

On the eve of his departure back to Britain, someone tries to kill the rather conventional, peaceable Graham. It turns out a conspiracy is afoot (isn’t there always) which he hears about when taken to meet Colonel Haki. How I cheered; the definitely sinister, even if apparently on the side of the angels, Turkish Secret Service high-up, whom everyone is rightly nervous of, also featured in The Mask Of Dimitrios.

In order to confound his known would be murderer, Haki arranges for Graham to be smuggled out of the country via a small cheap passenger ship. And, unsurprisingly what we have is an espionage orientated version of that wonderful classic – the country house murder. That is, a group of people holed up inescapably together. Wrongdoing, we know, is on the cards, there is at least one murderer, but everyone will turn out, probably, to be not quite who they seem to be, so, everyone is potentially suspect. And our hero, who has breezed through life in many ways like an innocent schoolboy, makes that journey into fear.

The book was later turned into a film starring Joseph Cotten as Graham (the English engineer became American), Dolores del Rio as the nightclub dancer Josette, a the vamp with a heart of……well, we aren’t quite sure, really, and Orson Welles as Colonel Haki. Certain liberties were inevitably taken, but I like this take on the initial murder attempt on Graham (much more mundanely done in the book)

Where this book differs from the domestic murder mystery is of course the involvement of the wider stage – the machinery of war, all who profit by it and the nations engaged in it.

There are some almost predictable red herrings, real sharks, wolves in sheep’s clothing and vice-versa, but all is done with panache, enjoyable tension, most masterfully. Our gathering of passengers on the ship is as satisfyingly memorable and eccentric a bunch as could be wished for.

Joseph Cotten as Graham and Orson Welles plus hat as Colonel Haki

Joseph Cotten as Graham and Orson Welles plus hat as Colonel Haki

This is one which should delight the aficionados of both old fashioned murder mysteries, and political/espionage thrillers alike. I shall read yet more Ambler, and sincerely hope to encounter Colonel Haki (shivers nervously) again.

4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5 – only because I do prefer Charles Latimer, the urbane, NYC21179.jpgwitty central character of The Mask of Dimitrios as a more amusing quicker witted companion than the more innocent Graham

Journey Into Fear Amazon UK
Journey Into Fear Amazon USA

Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty

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Initial delight soured : unbelievable gore sequence, and too much manipulation

MoriartyFor around three quarters of Horowitz’s second `Sherlock Holmes’ I was most enjoyably surrendered to this splendid `Holmesian in style but without the great man or his biographer’ book, as Horowitz pairs a self-created Holmes disciple, Inspector Athelney Jones, from Scotland Yard, with a `Pinkerton’s man’, Frederick Chase, and the two, meeting at the Reichenbach Falls, join forces in an investigation to track down a new American master criminal, Clarence Devereux.

The Reichenbach Falls are where Holmes allegedly fell to his death, along with his arch-enemy, Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. As the legion of fans of Conan Doyle’s stories know, Doyle killed off his too successful consulting detective, but later was forced to bring him back.

Horowitz starts by pleasurably playing with the reader’s sensibilities, as Chase, the American, picks holes in what happened at Reichenbach, throwing doubt on the actions of both Holmes and Watson. Something, he concludes, is not quite right. Jones, a detective who appears, bumblingly, in one of Holmes’ investigations, had lionised and hero-worshipped the great detective, and has studied ferociously to develop his own abilities, and now models himself on his dead hero. Chase, a more plodding, less flamboyant character, is willing to assume the mantle of Jones’ trusty Watson, as the two begin an investigation into the revelation that the mysterious American criminal Devereux was involved in joining forces with Moriarty to set up a global network of evil doing. And Chase as narrator, like Watson, tells a tale well.

Horowitz is brilliant at setting time, place, and cast of believable characters. Though there is certainly more graphic depiction of violence than personally I can take in fiction, as there is a taint of the gratuitous: violence as entertainment, I went happily along for the ride, appreciating Horowitz’ sly humour as he lobs Sherlockian history, characters and references into his thoroughly absorbing crime novel, steeped in the darkness of the Victorian underworld, and the valiant efforts of those who seek to fight the darkness

And then…………….about three quarters of the way through there is an absolute ratchet up of violence, and in a manner which is both horrible, gratuitous, and highly overdone. Reminding me of nothing so much as bad movies where the slamming and the pounding and the multiplicity of firepower and the like are of ridiculous proportions, unrealistic and in the end clumsy, lacking trust in the audience. Credibility as well as finesse is lost. At this point, my five star rating had fallen away.

And then the author becomes very audacious indeed. Far too much so, I believed; the cardinal crime of over-manipulation of character to force plot, shattering credibility, cheap tricks.

Except.

There is a relentless and detailed exposition of what has happened, and the reader is argued and browbeaten  into some sort of surrender. But, at least for me, the undoubted authorial cleverness has come at the cost of belief and involvement with the characters. I was left with the feeling that as the `trick’ and the whole thing, is, after all, only a fiction, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. WHAT doesn’t much matter can’t be revealed, for fear of spoilers.

This book is clearly dividing readers. I’m one of the ones who was hugely impressed by The House of Silk, and its authenticity to the style, and far less so with this.  Of course, in dispensing with Holmes and Watson, there is no need to retain the restraint, the humour, the charm of the original, but because Horowitz so firmly kept our awareness of all of that alive in the early part of the book, the fall away from that restraint, humour and charm left me only able to grudgingly say `yes, the author himself has been marvellously clever’  but I had no feeling of delight in the cleverness.

3 ½ stars. Probably having just finished the book, the overwhelming feeling is of let down, making it `okay’ only, maybe waiting before posting will give me more of a sense of my earlier appreciation, enough to, just, lift the book to a like.

And in the end, that is what happened, but in some ways its more for the fact that what for me are serious flaws provoked me into reflection about the whole ‘trick’ and unreality of fiction.

We know that a novel is a work of imagination, or at least is a subjective interpretation, and that the skilful author, like the skilful actor, is making us believe in their reality. And we WANT to be delighted by the author’s skill. It’s like a stage magician, we know we are being manipulated, and enter willingly into the manipulation. And some authors take great pains to keep us reminded, in a novel’s version of Brechtian alienation, that ‘this is not real’, it is a fiction.

Perhaps crime writing is closest to what the magician does – either the clues are there but our attention was diverted elsewhere, and eventually we might have the trick explained – that is what Sherlock Holmes does, or we as readers may also be working out the solution as we go along. And we might be delighted to have had our attention diverted, or we might just feel conned. I think there might be some sort of nebulous sense of what is fair play, whether in a novel or in a stage act. I’m stumblingly coming to the conclusion that there is an investment readers make with well crafted characters in a book, and that that investment, and the characters, need judicious handling by a writer.

I was, in the end, reminded of something Hitchcock, that master of suspense, said, that ‘shock’ in films is the easy thing, it is suspense which takes more craft. Horowitz delivered a stupendous shock. But what it left me with, was disappointment. A kind of grudging acknowledgement of his cleverness, rather than a delight in his sleight of hand. It’s fairly impossible to explain in quite what way I feel cheated without spoiling anyone else’s journey.

I’m guardedly recommending, more because I’m interested in discovering what other Anthony Horowitzreaders felt and thought. This would be a great book for a book-club, as I think it could provoke very very useful not to mention highly animated discussion!

And as a good example of how much this book is dividing fans of Conan Doyle, and indeed fans of Horowitz’s hommage to Conan Doyle series, look no further than my good bloggy friend FictionFan’s review. It was, after all, she who delightedly alerted me to the earlier The House Of Silk and also when this one hove onto the horizon

I really wish that Horowitz had kept the faith with at least one of the strengths which he pointed out was true of Conan Doyle’s writing, in his afterword to House Of Silk, where he observed that in the Sherlock Holmes stories the body counts, and also the graphic descriptions of violence, are spare. Of course, as the central characters in this story are neither Holmes nor Watson, and Horowitz has moved away into something slightly different, one could argue that more violence, and more corpses, don’t really matter. But, personally, the ‘less is more’ restraint of earlier writers has a lot to recommend it, and I wish there was less visiting the bargain basement of gore and indulging in what seems like a BOGOF offer on lovingly described bleeding corpses!

Moriarty Amazon UK
Moriarty Amazon USA

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

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A hundred years in the Mid-West, stirred through a family saga, and blending in the wide, wide world

Some LuckJane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ is Volume 1 of a trilogy, examining a tumultuous 100 years from just after the end of the Great War to 2020. Smiley does this by taking an ordinary family from Iowa, from mixed European settler stock, and following them forward through the generations, as children grow and become parents, and those children grow, in a world which is endlessly, rapidly in change.

Like Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning A Thousand Acres, this first volume of the trilogy shows the author as a writer with a deep connection to rural place and landscape, and to the powerful hold than ‘land’ can exert. She effortlessly shows how a story can be both deeply and uniquely personal, familial, and how the personal is always shot through with the ripples, tugs, and in-roads which the wider world and its history makes in the lives of each unique individual, as we all come from place, and live through time.

The structure of this first (and I assume the subsequent two) of the trilogy, takes each chapter looking at a year in the life of the family, exploring what is happening to them, in their relationships with each other, and their relationship with that world of which they are part. ‘Some Luck’ runs from 1920-1953

The central family is that of Walter Langdon, 25 in 1920, from Irish, Scottish, English settler heritage, a young farmer who had spent time in the Great War. His young wife Rosanna, from a German settler heritage has recently given birth to their first child, Frank.

Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Wiki Commons

Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Wiki Commons

The first few chapters present, stunningly, an inside into the mind of a small child, and the laying out of how personality is already clearly expressed. The relationships between parents, children, grandparents, the physical, rooted life in connection with the land, a sense of tradition, stability, and life unfolding in repeating spirals with change beginning to happen, faster and faster as the years roll by, is done with absolute assurance.

Things that he picked up, no matter how small, were removed from his grasp before he could give them the most cursory inspection, not to mention get them to his mouth. It seemed that he could never get anything to his mouth that he actually wanted to get there. Whatever he grabbed was immediately removed and a cracker was substituted, but he had explored all the features of crackers, and there was nothing more about them that he cared to find out

Smiley is in many ways a deceptively easy read. She tells a great story, and it’s clear this is and will be a marvellously absorbing narrative, an expose of social history, changing cultural landscapes, but she does this so apparently without effort, that there is never the sense of a character being manipulated to prove a point or to make something happen.

The influx of the wider world into the Langdon world, showing the effects of the depression of the 20’s, the move to war, the engagement of the second generation in that war, the rise of the Cold War, changing fashions in child care, the aspirations of modernity, a society where stability is giving way to rapid change, conservative capitalism versus consumerism, socialism, life post-Hiroshima and the shadow of the bomb, all this complexity is most beautifully revealed. Her book is as much educative social history as novel, without the history ever feeling like a information overload.

It was when I finished Some Luck, and sat down to think about what Smiley had done, and the manner of her doing it, that I realised how brilliantly the novel had been crafted. She is not a writer who stuns with her showy brilliance, but one who, when you stop and look at the piece, has crafted beautifully, properly, harmoniously. There is integrity to her work. And I can’t wait for volume 2, which will cover the 50’s to the 80’s, and where, I suspect, the sense of timelessness which still clung to the early part of Some Luck, will be wrenched asunder

as long as the words were not said…..(she) didn’t have to react, didn’t have to feel that thing that she was going to feel, that thing that was like an empty house with the windows smashed and the paint peeling and the pillars of the porch broken and the porch roof itself collapsing, which was something she had never seen, but became something she would never forget

Recommended, most highly recommended.Jane Smiley

I received this as a digital review copy from the publishers

Some Luck Amazon UK
Some Luck Amazon USA

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