Susan Hill – The Travelling Bag


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Well written ghostlies, but creating mild goose-bumps rather than uncontrollable shivers

the-travelling-bagSusan Hill is always worth reading, and she does the ghostly brigade well, though I must confess to wishing for a little more of those factors which would have had me whimpering in slight fear, and turning on all the lights. She did this marvellously of course in The Woman In Black, knowing how to turn up the volume knob of terror slowly and inexorably.

This moderately long story collection comprises 4 tales of the ghostly, and whilst they are well done, the first two did not create any unease in me at all – possibly because the chosen constructions for both stories tended to minimise and undercut fear in the reader, because fear was not really there for the narrator.

The first story, The Travelling Bag is not the narrator’s own story, and so there is a distance from emotion, through the using of one person to tell another’s story. This makes it a ghost story told as entertainment, so I was not surprised to find no hairs rising on the back of my neck, though there might well be some vivid images which make certain readers feel a little whimpery and uneasy!

Boy Number 21 also has a device which turns the fearful volume knob down. The narrator is reminded of an event from his long ago childhood. This concerns the paranormal. At the time, others in his circle were a bit spooked, but he himself was not, so, really, the absence of the narrator’s fear didn’t stir mine

Degas: Intérieur

Degas: Intérieur

It was only the third, and really, the fourth story which made me get close to any kind of feeling spooked and a bit scared – and that, after all, is surely one of the reasons we like ghost stories (those of us that do)

The central characters in the last two are female, as indeed the possible spookers are. What makes it work is that the characters the reader is being encouraged to identify with are uneasy, and becoming increasingly so, as the story progresses, so we have mounting fear going on. In the third story, Alice Baker, the inexplicable spooky goings on take place in the mundane surroundings of the typing pool in an office block.

The last story, The Front Room, was the one which most satisfied my desire for being a bit scared, set in an unexceptional twenties suburban house, at a time pretty close to the present, as DVD players and TVs figure! What makes for a better fear factor is that everyone, bar the source, is in the end scared. And this includes small children, which somehow made the scary happenings more sinister and potent.

The Monkey's Paw - W.W. Jacobs - scariest ghostly ever, written in 1902

The Monkey’s Paw – W.W. Jacobs – scariest ghostly ever, written in 1902

Hill is an old-fashioned ghost story writer – which I like, in that she focuses most on the psychology of the person being ‘spooked’, not to mention, the psychology of the haunter, so that the journey is about increases in tension rather than the BANG! RATTLE! of a plethora of sudden shocks, clanking chains, groaning coffins and the like which are the territory of what I dismissively think of as ‘Pulpy’ Horror writers.

Though, personally, as stated I do rather like the scare factor of a good ghost story, so would have liked to be a little more terrified, this would be a good one for a reader wanting a milder, gentler shivering turn

Photo credit Ben Graville

        Photo credit Ben Graville

I bought this as a download, but the ‘real’ book by all accounts is a beautifully presented one, and it’s probably particularly well-marketed for a Christmas stocking filler

The Travelling Bag Amazon UK
The Travelling Bag Amazon USA

Julian Maclaren-Ross – Of Love and Hunger


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“Adventurers though, must take things as they find them.
And look for pickings where the pickings are”


I have come to my posting as part of a co-host of The 1947 Club by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck In A Book and I am late (by a day) submitting my homework!

of-love-and-hungerIt took a little while for me to fully surrender to Julian Maclaren-Ross’s 1947 published novel, Of Love And Hunger, set primarily in the months leading up to the Second World War. The reason for my hold-back is that Of Love and Hunger, both because of subject matter and its setting, not to mention what I knew of Maclaren-Ross within his literary ‘set’, reminded me forcefully of earlier books by writers who are favourites of mine.

Firstly, Patrick Hamilton whose Hangover Square, written in 1941, and also set in the 1939 build-up to war, inhabits a similar achingly sad territory of a weak man, undone by a hopeless love, and yet with something loveable about him

The second is George Orwell’s 1936 Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Like the central character of Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock, Maclaren-Ross’s Richard Fanshawe is a man from the middle classes with some kind of literary pretentions, and a wearily cynical view of his times. Which are those of economic depression.

Fanshawe has had a prior life of some more influence in ‘Empire’ in Madras, but his nature has led to various failures, both professional and personal, and there are hints that he has handled relationships, romantic, and with his parents, badly, and that thinking about his past is a terrible pain and torment, to be avoided. Like Comstock, Fanshawe lacks a certain grittiness about himself, and is prone to melancholy, and a cynical despair.

Whilst I found both the Hamilton and Orwell much more immediately powerful reads, Maclaren-Ross, Fanshawe and his world began to grow on me. Something in the style of writing, the tension between the short, choppy sentences of Fanshawe’s observations, and the ‘left brain’ dialogue he has with himself, and the ‘unbidden’ recollections (stylised in italic text) which rise from his unwilling memories, and which he attempts to stuff down and silence, felt quite alluring and revealing.

Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job

That clippedness, that kind of stiff upper lipped buttoned up emotion is set against the unwanted feelings which threaten to rise up and overwhelm Fanshawe

…we drove along the path that was thick with fallen leaves and up into the wood itself, the tree trunks standing out all around us in the headlamps glare. We bumped to a standstill in the clearing and I cut the engine and the headlamps and there was only the light from the dashboard to see her by: the curly black hair and the high cheek-bones and the eyes set deep that gave her a Russian look and her mouth, her kiss

Maclaren-Ross’s writing began to work on me, and bruised, lost, corrupt, innocent, dishonest, honourable Fanshawe stirred my compassion.

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock

The narrative – heart-breaking, in its quiet way, and also at times very funny indeed follows Fanshawe through a rather hand-to-mouth existence on the edges of poverty as he runs up ‘tick’ with landladies and shopkeepers, trying to earn a living selling vacuum cleaners for a couple of rival firms who are themselves dealing shabbily with their workforce of casual salesmen. Hunger, and the avoidance of it, is a major theme. Love comes stalking Fanshawe, in the guise of Sukie, the wife of a colleague away at sea. Sukie is an equally complex individual, far stronger and more intelligent than Fanshawe – indeed she educates him, both in terms of making him think about politics and class, and about literature.

Maclaren-Ross’s women – Sukie herself, Jacqueline Mowbray, who is one of Fanshawe’s prospective customers, and even Miss Purvis, a fabulous canvasser of customer leads for the rather ineffectual salesmen – are seen as much stronger and more capable personalities.julian-maclaren-ross

This short book, just tipping over 200 pages is a deserved re-issue in Penguin’s Classics collection, conjuring up a world a heart-beat away from war, whilst the ‘little people’ lead their daily lives almost unaware of the larger forces of history which are impacting them.

Of Love and Hunger Amazon UK
Of Love and Hunger Amazon USA

Jodi Picoult – Small Great Things


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‘There is a fire raging, and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it’

UK Cover

UK Cover

Back in the summer, a courier unexpectedly gave me an envelope. It contained an unsolicited, mysterious book from publisher Hodder & Stoughton. The book had a black back cover and spine, and a front cover vertically divided into a back half and a white half. Curiously, it had no title, and it had no author. There was only an intriguing hashtag on the spine, in lieu of title : #canyoureadwithoutprejudice. The back cover had the following words on it :

We want you to immerse yourself in this dazzling novel, free from any preconceptions that a cover, title or author can bring. We ask you simply to #readwithoutpredudice.

The front cover had the following words

There are two points in life when we are all equal : At the moment of birth And at the moment of death. It is how we live between that defines us.

So…I found this an irresistible proposition. We almost never DO read without prejudice. We are drawn to an author unknown to us generally because we have heard something about the book chosen. Someone, whether a friend, or another author, or a print or internet review, will have given us conceptions to go by. Or maybe it is a cover, which suggests a book will have a certain tone, style, and may suggest something about the particular qualities of the book.

USA Cover

USA Cover

I freely admit to being extremely prejudiced about covers – I am drawn to covers which suggest some sort of literary quality: they often have a kind of symbolic feel to them, rather than obviously giving clues to content : this suggests to me that there will be a subtlety and depth in writing. ‘Loud’ graphic covers provoke a kind of distaste in me, and rightly or wrongly my assumption is that they will be poorly written, ‘pulp’ fiction.

So………the prospect of a read where I had nothing to guide my reading ship, and I would just have to boldly go, was not one to turn down.

The words on the front suggested, perhaps, this was going to be some kind of magic realist novel, perhaps something mystical/philosophical – Paulo Cuelho territory? I really had no idea

However, the chapter heading suggested something different. It was called stage one, Early Labor (aha! The author was American!) and had the following quote :

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are

Benjamin Franklin

Ruth Jefferson has been a labo(u)r and delivery nurse for more than twenty years. A highly respected, highly qualified, and exceptionally skilful one, both with the medical side and with the therapeutic relationship itself, dealing with the terrors and sometimes the tragedies of the birthing experience as well as its joys, with the expectant family members

Nevertheless Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany take exception to Ruth when she is assigned to carry out the post-delivery check-up on their new baby, Davis. They insist that Ruth shall not have any involvement in Davis’ care, and the hospital duly affix a note to the baby’s medical notes.

A medical emergency happens for Davis, and Ruth is the only person in the room when his breathing fails. What is she to do? Disobey her hospital’s instructions and take immediate action which might save Davis before the emergency medical team arrive? Do nothing?

This is the first dilemma

Little Davis dies as a result of the emergency

Potentially, the hospital itself might face a lawsuit for negligence. Instead, it is Ruth who faces the charge of negligence, and is suspended, pending investigation.

Far worse is to happen, as a criminal prosecution is filed against Ruth. The charge will be murder and involuntary manslaughter.

What on earth has happened here? Why have the Bauers insisted that Ruth Jefferson not be allowed to touch their new born baby? And why did the hospital accede to that request, when Jefferson’s twenty year record is not only impeccable, but exceptional?

Turk and Brittany Bauer are White Supremacists. Ruth Jefferson is Black.

Baby Bauer’s case note instructions stated: No African American Personnel to Care For This Patient.

Ruth is the only African American nurse.

All my life I have promised…that if you work hard, and do well, you will earn your place. I’ve said that we are not impostors, that what we strive for and get, we deserve. What I neglected to tell…was that at any moment, these achievements might still be yanked away

This book explores, obviously, not just the story of the specific individuals : Ruth, the Bauers, Ruth’s defence lawyer, Kennedy, but prejudice, particularly racial prejudice, not merely the prejudice which far right extremists espouse, but prejudice ingrained, inbuilt within the way a society functions. And does this within the form of a cracking, page-turning thriller

I am struggling to find a way to make him believe that in spite of this, we have to put one foot in front of the other every day and pray it will be better the next time the sun rises. That if our legacy is not entitlement, it must be hope.

Because if it’s not, then we become the shiftless, the wandering, the conquered. We become what they think we are.

Although I had no idea who the writer was, (never revealed in the book, not even in the interesting afterword) I was aware of the ball-park the writer came from. They were, I thought, female, and were not a literary writer, but a writer of populist fiction who did this well. And I thought this book was done very well. The reader is constantly finding that characters, all characters, have their own perceptions and beliefs challenged. As do readers. Unconscious prejudices against ‘other’ exist in all of us, and what this book does well is make readers – who may well believe they are ‘without prejudice’ realise how deeply prejudice may lie.

I read this in early summer, and found it a deeply unsettling, challenging, thought provoking read. How much more disturbing and chilling it seems now, as we head towards the possibility of a Presidential election which could deliver extremity into power. How much more disturbing and chilling it seems now, with the rise of what is called ‘Populist Politics’ And how terrifying that populism is retrograde, reactionary, fear-and-anger driven, hate driven.

Small Great Things is due to be published on 11th October in the States, but not until 22nd November in the UK. By which time we will know which way ‘populism’ happened in America itself

The quote at the review head is from the author’s afterword

 I think this is an important book, with uncomfortable, challenging things to say. My sense that the book was written by a fine writer who nonetheless did not feel like a ‘literary’ writer came from the fact that as complex as she allows the ideas to be (and she does) and as complex as she allows the characters to be (and she does) something in the author’s voice prevents me from being taken inside characters.

So I am also left thinking further about just what is it that leads me to think something is literary fiction – it’s not just about ‘do I think this is a good book’ or not – there are books which clearly ARE literary fiction but might not be good ones!  (in my opinion)

What do you think defines literary fiction?

It was this book that had me creating the category Contemporary Fiction, because I had nowhere I could properly assign it. I have added the category to several earlier books – including some which are also, clearly, literary (all of Patrick Flanery’s for example) though I see Amazon has him listed in their rankings for books as Contemporary only and has this one listed in both Literary and Contemporary! My personal definition for this new category is that the book is saying something quite definitely and consciously about the wider contemporary society it is set in, and is not purely about the specific characters the story is about, but that, in some ways, they are ‘containers’ for that wider society. Perhaps the big difference for me with Literary which is also Contemporary is that whilst I am for sure aware with Flanery, that his characters ‘contain’ each of them is far more than that, so that unique, recognisable individuality and voice is what hits first, and what they represent is equally integral.jodi-picoult

I shall be intrigued to hear the views of those who read, or have already read this book. Literary? Contemporary? Literary Contemporary? Legal thriller? All of those things?

For sure, Picoult made me think long and hard about all sorts of things, which generally only lit-fic does, but, still I don’t quite think this is. 

Small Great Things Amazon UK published 22nd November
Small Great Things Amazon USA published 11th October

Anthony Horowitz – Magpie Murders


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5 stars for Atticus Pünd and another 5 stars for his careful editor Susan Ryeland

magpie-murdersSusan Ryeland is a literary editor for Cloverleaf Books, a small, independent publisher whose success is primarily dependent on one man, ‘Golden-Age’ crime writer Alan Conway. Well, to be properly precise, Golden-Age-Crime-Genre writer, as Conway, like the rest of us, lives in modern times. Conway, of course, is the author of the hugely successful Atticus Pünd series of detective novels, and the series is an homage to Agatha Christie, amongst others, in many ways. A BBC TV series is pending, and the latest book in the series, Magpie Murders, is enticingly waiting for Ryeland’s editing work to start.

Ms Ryeland introduces herself, and then the first half of the book which you might be considering reading is Conway’s manuscript, as submitted to Cloverleaf Books. It’s helpful to keep that in mind, as you peruse, as the book entitled Magpie Murders, by the author Anthony Horowitz, also has much involvement from Susan!

Sometimes, authors play tricks games and deceptions on their readers, and we resent untoward, unsubtle manipulations, and sometimes – as here – the more we are tricked, distracted, deceived and toyed with, the more we love it, gasping at authorial audacity, crowing with delight as rug after rug is whipped from under us, and as every clue we cry ‘AHA!!! ‘about turns out to be a herring of reddish hue, we want to applaud the author for his cleverness and our own naïveté

This is a most delicious romp. I can’t really say more, because I think the less the reader knows about the journey Horowitz will take them on, the more they may enjoy it. He is a consummate craftsman of the genre, and it was a complete delight to surrender to his writerly skills

All I would say, is that the decision to allow to Susan introduce herself first is an extremely good one, stylistically. It prevents the sort of sudden tricksy surprises an author might spring which leave the reader feeling cheated – information which should have been revealed, withheld by authorial contrivance, only. And what it also does is create an interesting double perspective right at the start, and reads one way, with another reading possibility lurking whisperingly in the mind.

I enjoyed this so much that I could hardly bear to put the book down, and was also MAKING myself only read in short bursts, as I really wanted to prolong the pleasure for as long as possible.

If you are an aficionado of Golden-Age Crime writing, particularly Christie, I expect you will enjoy it even more, due to the little synchronicities which you will recognise. But, fear not, because if these pass you by, because you aren’t familiar enough, (they did me!) Ms Ryeland is remarkably helpful so that the innocent can still appreciate the jokes!

There is also some no doubt helpful advice, for those plotting their own detective novels, from Ryeland’s years of appreciation of the genre, and the editorial skills she brings to bear on her work, when reading submissions from prospective authors:

If there is one thing that unites all the detectives I’ve ever read about, it’s their inherent loneliness. The suspects know each other. They may well be family or friends. But the detective is always the outsider. He asks necessary questions but he doesn’t actually form a relationship with anyone. He doesn’t trust them, and they in turn are afraid of him. It’s a relationship based entirely on deception and it’s one that ultimately, goes nowhere.

I received this, as an ARC, from the publisher via NetGalley. And have to say, to my huge joy, given the subject matter, there were quite a lot of formatting and typo mistakes. Not having seen the ‘out on the shelves’ version, I can’t say whether these are deliberate or not, but they did add to the fun for me, rather than irritate!

Let me leave the last word to the erudite, literary Ryeland:

I’m not sure it actually matters what we read. Our lives continue along the straight lines that have been set out for us. Fiction merely allows us a glimpse of the alternative. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we enjoy it

And the designer of that delectable cover should be commended, something Kindlers horowitzmiss

The final word will be mine, after all: those amongst us who are a little squeamish about dripping-with-gore-crime-fiction, rest assured that though there are a couple of quick arresting images which might cause those who are easy visualisers to become a bit squeamy for a moment, this is not lovingly dwelled on – we are, after all, in Golden-Age territory before serial slashers and their ilk began predictably stalking the pages of crime fiction, casually dismembering women (particularly beautiful ones)

Magpie Murders Amazon UK
Magpie Murders Amazon USA

Alain de Botton – The Course of Love


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Novel ‘novel’

the-course-of-loveAlain de Botton’s new novel, is, I think more of a psychoanalytical and philosophical investigation into the nature of love interspersed within the story of a particular couple. For example, something which a lot of novels (but not all) have, as ways to keep the reader engaged and turning pages, is an as yet-unknown journey – a plot of some unpredictability.

Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue

de Botton ensures, right from the start that the reader knows absolutely the major staging posts of this journey. There are five major sections – and I am tempted to call them Acts, like an Elizabethan play, and each Act has several scenes within it. (or chapters). These are named, and we are thereby told what will happen in ‘The Course of Love’ : Romanticism; Ever After; Children; Adultery; Beyond Romanticism;

Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing……They teach us to give without expecting anything in return, simply because they need help badly – and we are in a position to provide it

The idea of this being a 5 act play suggested itself to me also because there is within it the idea of ‘playing a role’ – also, in classical tragedy, the chorus comments on the action and ‘de-constructs’ meaning for us, plus, there is an audience, observers, who both watch and are involved – and the role of the chorus is to take the audience out of over-involvement so that the wider picture can be seen, and happenings taken out of ‘this is an individual story’ into something more universal, with lessons for all.

Melancholy isn’t, of course, a disorder that needs to be cured. It’s a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face to face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start

Here ‘the actors’ playing their parts, and standing for the rest of us, are Rabih and Kirsten : they are both unique individuals with their own backgrounds and family histories, and ‘everyman and everywoman’. This book follows the trajectory of their lives and relationships, with the main focus being on the internal, often unconscious, emotional landscape which drives what happens externally.


Interspersed with the events of their lives, both the major and the small, daily, landscape ones, are ‘Alain de Botton’ as the observing chorus, analyst, interpreter. He breaks one of the ‘Creative Writing Skills’ ideas : that is, show, don’t tell, by deliberately doing both. Rabih and Kirsten, for example, might find themselves in an argument over something small which has suddenly come out of nowhere – which glasses should they buy for their table – the argument happens, and then the authorial voice deconstructs what underlies, in psychological terms – very much related to patterns lid down in early childhood – the strong survival instinct responses each are experiencing.

Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm

There is, for this reader, a fascination to what seems like a literary story, then analysed by a psychotherapist whose background comes from Bowlby’s attachment theory – the primary relationship, which affects all others, is that which the infant and then the small child has with their caregivers. De Botton, the ‘author’ of these explained sections takes us ‘inside the feelings’ of his characters – but, from the outside. We, as indeed they, are invited to understand themselves – and each other

If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun

I can quite clearly see that if what the reader is after is a more unpredictable story line, if what the reader wants is to submerge empathically with Rabih, Kirsten or both, de Botton’s simultaneous pull-you-in, pull-you-out-and-now-think-about-the-trajectories-of-your-own-relationships might annoy, but, for myself, I found it a wonderful piece of writing, even if I’m not quite certain what to call it.alain-de-botton-small-pic

I was underlining here, there and everywhere (mainly in the ‘authorial/analysis of subtext sections)

This was provided as a review copy, from the publishers, via NetGalley

The Course of Love Amazon UK
The Course of Love Amazon USA

Michelle Paver – Thin Air


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Not quite as Dark as ‘Matter’ but casting its own creeping, chilly shadow…..

thin-airI had thoroughly shivered and enjoyed, in terror, Michelle Paver’s earlier, chilly-set Dark Matter, so I was both delighted and a little worried when offered Thin Air, with a similarly chilly – though elevated, setting. My worry was literary, rather than the cold terror which I ideally was hoping to find – those of us who like stories involving the ghostly are, after all, WANTING the clammy neck, the sweaty palms, the jumping at shadows experience – and thankful for the ability to blaze lightbulbs all around, rather than the flicker of candles in the darkness of the night.

The literary worry was that there are always challenges when a writer manages something near perfection, and then repeats the same kind of recipe – will the reader have become wise to the particular authorial tricks, see them coming, and so not be able to feel and viscerally experience them, instead, stand outside and analyse

Well, yes, to a certain extent this did happen for me here, and has become responsible for a ‘like’ rather than a ‘love’ experience. It’s difficult to judge whether if THIS has been my first experience of a ghostly Paver, rather than Dark Matter, if this would have been the 5 and that the 4 – but I suspect not. One of the factors which made Dark Matter work so very well was that the central character was very much alone, which intensified the terror, the strangeness, the isolation.

Although Thin Air is still set in a forbidding, challenging cold landscape – one of the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga, there are many more people in this story so there isn’t quite the feeling of isolation which made Dark Matter so powerful.

Kangchenjunga East Face, from Zemu Glacier, Wiki

Kangchenjunga East Face, from Zemu Glacier, (a scary face) Wiki

The period is shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. A group of 5 British climbers (and a larger group of accompanying Sherpas) are attempting to climb Everest’s third highest mountain by its most difficult, inaccessible route. One which has already been responsible for deaths, and which the Sherpas, undertaking their role only because of course they need to make a living, have grave doubts over. The Sherpas are far more aware of ‘supernatural forces’ and the need to respect the mountain, and also propitiate, by ritual, forces which might need propitiation or avoidance. There are conflicts between this approach and the forces of ‘rationality’ which denies any of those forces, which the scientific, left-brain British team represent.

Within the British climbing team, there are other, interesting conflicts, most clearly seen in sibling rivalry between Christopher ‘Kits’ Pearce, highly ambitious, successful mountaineer, and his brother Stephen, who is narrator. Stephen is a late choice for the team who are to proceed to the summit. He is a doctor, and a far more complex, introspective and open-minded character than Kits.

There are some mysteries and shadows over an earlier, unsuccessful attempt on Kangchenjunga by the ‘bad’ route. Stephen has a sensitivity towards the Sherpas and their intuition, plus a susceptibility to ‘feeling the atmosphere’ which his brother lacks. Nevertheless, he is a scientist, a rational man, so is also aware of the profound effects produced by altitude sickness. So there is an interesting conundrum for him – is he a classic ‘unreliable narrator’ – is what is going on ‘imaginings’ brought about by mountain fever and the altered physiology of oxygen starvation, or are there external realities. It is not just the reader who wonders, we follow Stephen’s wonderings.

Kangchenjunga, South-West Face, Wiki

Kangchenjunga, South-West Face, (another scary face) Wiki

To help us along and to decide whether the Sherpas or the rationalists should be trusted, there is a dog (just as there were dogs in Dark Matter) But, of course, a dog would also be experiencing altitude sickness…………..

As I got further into the book I was able to leave the memories of Dark Matter behind, and surrender to Paver’s telling of THIS tale

And my enjoyment and shiver mounted with the appearance of the terrifying object, deployed so brilliantly in one of the best and most shivery ‘ghosts’ I ever read – W.W.Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. Paver has an object, and I whimpered anxiously as it brought the added accretion of my memory of Jacobs’ story into the roompaver-thin-air

I received this as an ARC from the publishers via NetGalley. It will be published, in hardback and digital in the UK on 6th October, and also on that date in digital in the States

Thin Air Amazon UK
Thin Air Amazon USA

Patrick Modiano – The Black Notebook


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A sense of Modiano Déjà vu. Of course. Déjà vu

black-notebookThe Black Notebook is set of course in Paris. Paris becomes far more of a stable character with some kind of – if not quite fixed identity– at least more graspable in place and time than the characters we follow in The Black Notebook, a short novella. This is beautifully written of course, and like some swimmy, impressionistic symphony of melancholy. A dusk of greys and blues, slowly growing darker.

The central narrator is a young man, Jean (very similar to the central character of After the Circus, also named Jean) This young man (like that one) begins a curious obsession and relationship with a mysterious slightly older woman. Dannie (like Gisele in After the Circus) is not who she seems. In fact she turns out to have a plethora of aliases, and a series of shadowy connections amongst a group of people who may be, or are, known criminals, political agitators, or both. The shadowy connections Dannie has are under surveillance by the police, and Jean himself is of interest to the police because of his associations with Dannie and the others. And the evasive Dannie herself, dropping veiled hints, clues, is of particular interest to the policeman who figures in these pages. The time is the early 60’s (and the present) and the powers that be are keeping a watchful eye on those of Algerian, Moroccan, connections


                  Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt , Paris 1963

The Black Notebook of the title is Jean’s. He carries this around with him, and constantly notes down all kinds of things, the names of streets, appointments, names, stray sentences, things he sees. This is remarkably unsettling for the reader, who is swiftly in the uneasy, watchful territory which is Modiano’s oeuvre. We read on eggshells, waiting for some uncomfortable revelation – and yet there’s a flavour of anticipation and pleasure in not knowing anything. It’s an intensely Romantic – ‘half-in-love-with-easeful-death’ kind of world, as well as an unsettling one. Who is Jean? Who are these mysterious people, Dannie and the others?. Are they (any of them) who they appear to be? What is this notebook? Is Jean himself a police informer? All this will of course (well, some of this, of course) will be revealed as the book progresses.

Since my youth – and even my childhood – I had done nothing but walk, always in the same streets, to the point where time had become transparent

Nothing, no one, not even place, stays the same – because walking side by side with Jean in the 60s, is Jean, 50 years later, reading his Black Notebook., walking the same streets, and aware of his earlier self, walking with memories, trying to find who he was, who he is, and to disentangle events from memories of events, and even from the memories of the memories.


It took me a little time to settle into the fact that I felt I was reading After The Circus again – this is part of the point, I think, this sense of dislocated time, far from linear, now-carries-then. Modiano doesn’t do anything as obvious as offer solutions, but he does make us experience the insecurity behind what we might think is the truth of here and now or of there and then. modiano

I received this as a review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley, The translator is Mark Polizzotti, who seems to be ‘the’ translator of Modiano

The Black Notebook Amazon UK
The Black Notebook Amazon USA

Robert Harris – Conclave


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‘No sane man could possibly want the papacy’ : Listening for the still, small voice

conclaveRobert Harris’ prior existence as a political journalist always informs his writing, bringing specific skills to his novels: being concise, not overwriting, clearly giving information and opening out moral arguments in ways which are far from dry and academic; he is an excellent communicator. He is also a creative and imaginative writer, able to imagine into character and create living breathing individuals, with flesh on their bones, not merely ciphers standing for particular viewpoints. He understands the dramatic drive for narrative, and necessity for the unexpected, without sacrificing everything else for narrative drama.

This particular book, based as it is around the election of a new Pope, might seem irrelevant, peculiar, or dull, depending on the reader’s sense of what drama is, and what their view of religious organisations might be. After all, 118 elderly men, the second tier of seniority in the Catholic church, gathered, from all over the world, to elect one of their number as the Supreme Head of their worldwide organisation, where is the drama in that? Where (some might argue) is its importance or relevance?

Cardinals processing towards voting in the Sistine Chapel

Cardinals processing towards voting in the Sistine Chapel

For the however-long-it-takes for one of them to get the requisite two-thirds majority winning Pope vote, the cardinals have to remain sequestered from the world, without either communicating with it, or receiving communications from it. And what makes it different from any other elite gathering where an election to a position of power is being sought, is that (in theory at least) the cloistered, reflective series of arcane rituals, the periods of silence, the absence of computers, phones, reading material other than sacred texts, are all designed to help each of them listen for the still, small voice of God to help them make the best choice for their Church itself, their flock, their faith, and the needs of the world.

This is highly dramatic stuff – and it plays right into Harris’ strengths and interests as a writer – many of his books have examined institutions and individuals in positions of power, and the kinds of conflicts and corruptions the powerful may experience, and also, how power might be used responsibly.

The election of a Pope ought, in theory, to come about through the cardinals seeking to know the will of God, and to lay aside ego – but cardinals are human, and like all of us, prone to the variety of human weaknesses and flaws. Harris neither hagiographises nor demonises. Amongst the 118 are those who are consciously striving for virtue – as expected – but there are also those who are rather more consciously surrendered to the worst failings of the power-corrupts mindset. The bulk of his cast of characters though are curate’s (or in this case, cardinal’s) eggs – good in parts, and wanting to be better than they are. Harris acknowledges the seriousness of abuses which some of the clergy indulged in, and others covered up, but he does not make the mistake of pinning vice or collusion on one and all.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam (I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope!)

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam (I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope!)

Conclave explores the schisms and conflicts in the Church – traditionalists versus modernisers, liberalism, thinking around all the issues arising from sexuality, the role of women in the church, and how the Church positions itself in terms of politics of the left or of the right, in the world at large. Always a consummate political thriller novelist he resides issues within rounded individual psychology. Character is the driver and container for everything, and the individuals who will carry and express particular ideological positions are never just mouthpieces for the expressing of ‘isms’.

The central character in Conclave is a very reliable (third-person) narrator, extremely sympathetically drawn. Cardinal Lomeli is the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the one who must oversee and organise the election. He is a wonderful, ‘doubting Thomas’ character, seriously wrestling at times with his faith and with his human flaws, rigorously self-examining. He is also, by virtue of his role in this election, and his particular character, the one who must investigate the various things-which-are-not-quite-right events. A holy detective and a holy therapist-from-within-the-confessional!


This was shaping up, for two-thirds of the twisty, thrillery, fascinatingly informative journey to be a magnificently 5 star read, with tensions mounting as the various front-runners for the Papacy gained or slipped back from their positions in that race. Around the 200 page mark, Harris released a little clue to indicate a possible further twist. And I must confess this had me catching my breath and muttering ‘ Oh no…….I really hope this doesn’t mean……..’

And unfortunately it did. And that big twist felt a contrivance and I’m sorry Harris did it. There were actually a couple of ‘let’s clash some major issues of the day into this book’ which did not really seem seamless and organic to me, so my overall assessment is 4 star,

A fabulous ride for nearly 200 pages, coming down from the sunlit reading horizons to something a bit less inspired. But still recommendedrobertt-harris

I received this as a review copy from the publisher, Hutchinson

And thanks to blogbud FictionFan, who encouraged me in the penning of an appealing begging letter to Hutchinson. Read her excellent review here

Conclave Amazon UK
Conclave Amazon USA

Eric Ambler – Cause for Alarm


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Espionage and armament sales in the slow build up to the Second World War

cause-for-alarmEric Ambler’s spy novels do follow a set formula, which sometimes works magnificently, and sometimes leaves a little dissatisfaction. Had I never read any Ambler before, I might have liked this one, one of his great five earlier novels written in the build-up to the Second World War and its early days, with less of a slight niggle. Hugely enjoyable, and in the main tightly written, as always, but lacking the brilliance of my personal favourite, The Mask Of Dimitrios.

Ambler’s politics were of the left, and he was someone who saw the dangers of fascist politics quite early. His espionage novels do not involve sophisticated lantern-jawed heroes , imbued with glamour and steely masculinity, saving the State. Instead, his heroes almost invariably are quite ordinary men who are not professional spies or spy killers, but who unwittingly, unwillingly find themselves in dangerous situations as politics and history unfold around them. He is interested in the ‘little man’ caught up in something he doesn’t understand – someone almost an innocent abroad – and, at times, a fool because he fails to understand that innocence is often dangerous ignorance.

So it is here. Nicholas Marlow is an engineer, recently engaged, and recently made redundant – we are in the pre-war thirties, and jobs not easy to find. Marlow is getting a little desperate as he wants a job in order to marry. And then he discovers one for which he is almost a perfect fit. A British firm, Spartacus, is supplying shell-cases to Italian companies. It is late 1936, and Germany and Italy, two countries with Fascist leaders, have already formed the Berlin-Rome Axis. The British company had a British man in Milan who had been creating and managing the business opportunities for trade with Italian armaments firms, but this man had recently died in a hit-and-run accident.

They are looking for an Italian speaker (tick) who is also an engineer who can talk the tech specs (tick) and if possible, someone who is a salesman. Marlowe is not the latter, but otherwise is perfect, and, as no one applying for the job carries the triple kill, he gets it by virtue of the more important first two requirements. And off he goes to Milan, where things appear to be, almost immediately, shady. There are a couple of dodgy or incompetent personnel working in the Milan office. His predecessor had been living in a palatial accommodation he should not have been able to afford on his salary, and, almost immediately Marlowe is schmoozed by a couple of very different characters, each of whom warns him against the other. There are signposts for the reader, and for Marlow himself, which immediately render one more trustworthy than the other. An oleaginous General, a Yugoslav, and a bluff, stocky man with a prize-fighter’s nose, unruly hair, blue eyes, an energetic manner, an American accent and a Russian name.

La Scala, Milan in 1932. A scene happens here!

              La Scala, Milan in 1932. A scene happens here!

And then Marlow’s is summoned by the police to present his documents. His passport is taken away for inspection, and promptly lost. His mail is also being steamed open and read by person or person’s unknown. A lot of people seem to be interested in an innocent salesman selling armaments

Ambler does not labour the clearly ambiguous situation Marlow finds himself in, or that Spartacus itself is engaged in, but here is where ‘innocence’ and dangerous ignorance begin to come together, and the reader, not to mention Marlow himself, have to think that most actions come with agendas, and we need to consider some kind of morality :

If Spartacus were willing to sell shell-production machinery and someone else were willing to buy it, it was not for me to discuss the rights and wrongs of the business. I was merely an employee. It was not my responsibility. Hallett would probably have had something to say about it, but Hallett was a socialist. Business was business. The thing to do was to mind one’s own

Quite quickly, the innocent abroad is in a position of danger, without any real understanding of why and how

This is a terrific, intelligent page-turner. There are a couple of coincidences and deviations too far : I was not quite sure why the encounter with a mathematician was placed in the mix, it seemed a bit of an unnecessary diversion., though in the foreword, which, as is my won’t, I read afterwards, John Preston (foreword writer in my Penguin Modern Classics edition) argues for it. It’s no spoiler to have mentioned it here, though, I promise!.

Ambler is always worth reading. There are thrills, and, in the main, plausible adventures, not to mention great characters. He is always free from jingoism and there is little endemic anti-Semitism in his writing, something which was regrettably common in many books penned at this time, before later events showed what a bed-rock of racial or group prejudice could lead to.ambler-and-cars

Cause For Alarm Amazon UK
Cause For Alarm Amazon USA

a 1951 noir film with the same title is unrelated to Ambler’s novel

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times


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Historical analysis of mental health care wedded to an almost unbearably painful warts and warts memoir.

the-last-asylumHistorian and writer Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum is partly an objective analysis of mental healthcare provision from the early provision of ‘places of asylum’ and/or places of incarceration, to the more recent dismantling of long stay psychiatric hospitals in favour of ‘Care In The Community’ . Asylum provision itself, which, at its best can provide a place of safety and community for the vulnerable, can at its worst also be a dumping ground for all kinds of people with mental, emotional or behavioural ‘difficulties’ which are perceived as outside society norms. And moreover can be a place where the lost, confused, furious, terrified or despairing can be treated brutally and abusively

History’s verdict has yet to be delivered, and it is possible that the judgment will be more favourable to the old asylums, at least in some respects, than psychiatric modernizers would like us to believe

Closing asylums, however, has been far from an unalloyed blessing. The change in the way psychological dis-ease has been dealt with was not a move done with completely pure, outcome driven intent. Cost was a huge driver. Like asylums themselves, and how patients fared within them, ‘Care In The Community’ as a concept is hugely variable on the ground, as Taylor, explains. At its best, people are supported back into community by skilled case workers, with provision for sheltered housing, day centres, and a wealth of trainings. Unfortunately the ‘at its best’ is a rare beast in times of austerity, and in the aftermath of Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as Society’ ethos, the vulnerable may find themselves with little care, and outside any community.

Anthony Bateman summarized the situation to me : “The relational, pastoral component of mental health care has been eliminated. All that is left now is a mechanistic, formulaic, depersonalised substitute for quality care”

The Last Asylum is not only objective and historical analysis. Taylor herself is/has been one of the vulnerable, from very young. She came from a high-achieving and materially successful Canadian background. Material well-being, as she acknowledges, was certainly helpful to her in one of her chosen routes towards recovery, but material well-being is not of course any guarantee that parents will be able to provide good, supportive, loving and unexploitative grounding for their children. Taylor suffered abuse as a child, the sexual dynamics in her family were disturbing, and the relational messages from both parents, remarkably creepy. Early signs of Taylor’s anxiety, depression and instability were ignored, and it seems there was a fair degree of undermining of her, as well as exploitation.

The lived past is never really past; it endures in us in more ways than we understand

More than half the book is about Taylor’s long experience of breakdown, rage, terror, despair, self abuse and alcoholism, and details her personal experience as a ‘service user’ of mental healthcare provision – including 3 spells as an inmate in ‘The Last Asylum’ –Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which on its opening in 1851 represented progressive, enlightened treatment of mental health, but very quickly became associated with some of the worst excesses of institutions where the fragile were dumped, forgotten and incarcerated. At the time of Taylor’s 3 admissions there, in the late 1980s, the final one lasting 5 months, the now renamed ‘Friern Hospital’ was already scheduled for closure, under those changed ‘Care In The Community’ drives. But, as Taylor explains, the Hospital provided a place of safety, support and containment for many, and proper provisions for community care outside were often non-existent

'Colney Hatch Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1851'

Colney Hatch Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1851′

As well as support through hospitalisation, Taylor was also lucky in her NHS psychiatrist. She also took the decision to embark on psychoanalysis, privately paid for. Soon, she was seeing her analyst (including during her spells in Friern) 5 times a week. This went on for 21 years.

I know………it gave me pause for thought too.

Friern Hospital now converted as a prime location for luxury flats as Princess Park Manor

Friern Hospital now converted as a prime location for luxury flats as Princess Park Manor

And a large part of this book recounts the circular conversations between Taylor and her analyst – she kept journals recording what she said, what he said, what she felt, what her dreams were. This makes for pretty depressing reading to be honest. And, it must be said at times extremely wearing. Taylor is, I think, very honest: there is little attempt to charm the reader, to get the reader to like her – she presents herself as grandiose, self-obsessed, manipulative and without empathy, compassion and understanding for others around her. Indeed these aspects of her nature and behaviour formed a major strand in her analysis However…….though all this meant that her personal story at times became utterly wearing, there had to be far more to her than that, as she also had a group of incredibly supportive friends over the decades, who clearly loved and cherished her, and did not wash their hands of someone who, on the face of it, in her account in this book, does not reveal just why those friends so clearly were and remain her loyal friends.

Poverty is a psychological catastrophe. Anyone who thinks that madness is down to defective brain chemistry needs to look harder at the overwhelming correlation between economic deprivation and mental illness

I value this book for the honesty and clarity which Taylor sometimes expresses about herself – she is well aware that the ‘luxury’ – in terms of how it helped her – of that 21 year journey of analysis was only available because of family funds – for a long, long, time she was too ill, too self-destructive, too drunk to work. And she also answers the questions which I think any reader must have about whether that 21 years was a waste of time and money, whether she could/would have got better without it, and faster, whether some of the ‘fast result’ approaches like CBT would have been a better option, whether, if long term stay in Friern had not been available, could she/would she have got better – or might she have killed herself without any or all of these supports. Indeed did some of the support (those 21 years) actually make her WORSE. As she shows, going into deep analysis is not some wonderfully self-indulgent place, it’s at times excruciatingly abrading, an endless delving for suppurating boils. Most of us find ways to plaster over and avoid our deepest pains, if at all possible.

Homeless feelings are boundless; they sweep all before them. Their violence is as all-engulfing as the primeval experiences – aloneness, helplessness, total vulnerability – that power them. Some memories never lose their potency; they live on in the heartbeat, the muscles, the breath

She is honest enough, in effect, to say she can’t really answer any of that – who knows? Nor is she crassly suggesting that any one approach is ‘the’ approach for the treatment of mental and emotional illness. What she cogently argues against is the taking away of choice. Some people needed the support of asylum; some people needed a longer, more relational safer space afforded by a psychotherapist – or even a psychiatrist who was more than just a quick dispenser of pills on a ten or twenty minute appointment. What we have now is, often, doing no more than placing a plaster over an infected wound, dispensing pills which cosh the symptoms of dis-ease, and create dependency. It’s a one size fits all.barbara-taylor

A disturbing, thought provoking book, and a powerful one

The Last Asylum Amazon UK
The Last Asylum Amazon USA