Noah Hawley – Before the Fall

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A rich, nuggetty slice of thoughtful thrillery : sensation seeking society in the dock

Noah Hawley does far more than craft a page-turning thriller. He is a writer who makes the reader think about the ethics of the society we live in, how it might be, to inhabit the lives of his creations, and, what choices WE might make, in helping to create the ethics of our world.

I first found him with the troubling The Good Father, a novel written from the perspective of a loving father whose son carries out an assassination on a respected presidential hopeful.

So, when offered Before The Fall, as a digital ARC, I was interested BECAUSE the author was Hawley, and thought the novel itself would be rather more interesting than the blurb suggested . Any book with any kind of sensationalist story, might be written purely as a ratchet tension, or, might ratchet, and have more about it. And, of course, Hawley being Hawley, it does.

The CEO of a populist news channel, who promotes, rather, edgy conspiracy driven, whip up feelings programmes, which are not necessarily blazing with the light of truth, is travelling back from Martha’s Vineyard to New York, with his family, in a commissioned private plane. He is the kind of man who warrants 24 hour private protection. Also on the plane is another member of the superpowerful, superwealthy, from the financial makers and shakers of society, wheeling and dealing, skating close to the edges of the law, and not always holding the moral line. In fact, possibly off centre a lot. On board also, is someone quite different. An artist, possibly a good one, a man with a bit of a bad boy personal past, someone who appeared to show more promise than he ever realised, but, now, on the verge of having found his vision again.

Inexplicably 18 minutes into the flight, the plane plunges off radar and crashes into the ocean. Even more seemingly improbably, two survive; Scott Burroughs, the artist, and the CEO’s youngest child, 4 year old JJ. That survival is almost impossible to credit or imagine, and happens because Burroughs, influenced when a small child by the media star figure of Jack LaLanne, had taken to ‘you can do anything if you really put the work in’ challenging swimming. With busted shoulder, in fog, wreckage and darkness, he takes the heroic path, hearing the child crying out somewhere near him in the ocean and gets the two of them to shore, several miles away.

Jack LaLanne – a role model from simpler times

The high profiles, power and wealth of David Bateman, the TV man, and Ben Kipling, finance supremo, suggest that the crash may have been more than ordinary mechanical failure. So contrasting investigative teams are drawn in. One, searching purely for evidence about aircraft and its safety, the other, part of an investigation into motive, and lawbreaking, not to mention, terrorism.

In these days, conspiracy theories are always of far more interest than rational explanations. Scandal, we all know, sells. So there are also far scummier motivations at work. Bateman’s populist channel has a rabble-rousing, fake-news peddling, soaring ratings presenter, Bill Milligan. So…….whilst some news outlets present more sober, as factual-as-the-can-be-till-we-know-more accounts of what happened, and are pretty sure that Scott Burroughs is a good, old-fashioned hero, others have more of an ear out for the whisper of conspiracy.

Burroughs is by nature a private man, and unwilling anyway to become the fodder of a feeding frenzy of ‘how did it feel?’ ‘how did manage to do that?’ interest, however benevolently curious. This, in part, feeds Milligan’s natural tendency to hone in on any jugular going – invented or not  – blood-letting, sleaze, slime gets massive ratings. Some journalists exploit our seamier desires.

Stylistically, Hawley gives us the inside stories, the in the head viewpoints, of all who were on the aircraft, passengers and crew, all involved in the investigation, and others drawn into the fallout of tragedy.

This is thriller – why did this happen, is there a hidden agenda beyond the obvious – which is wonderfully page-turning, but, all through, it also makes the reader think. How responsible are we, when we consume sleaze stories, for the continuation of sleaze? There are other topics thrown in for good measure, often little more than asides, Hawley casts pearls, and we must hope we are not swine! A classy, thought provoking thriller.

Before the Fall Amazon UK
Before the Fall Amazon USA

Mandy Aftel – Fragrant – The Secret Life of Scent

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Synaesthetic descriptions of perfumed delight

I am filled with admiration for Mandy Aftel’s writing about perfumery. Although a beautiful book to handle and read in ‘real’ form, with its thicker than normal, creamy coloured paper, beautiful, often archaic line drawings, and shiny, alluring woodcut/embossed type red cover, this is not a coffee table book. Rather, I would say Aftel is inviting you into imaginative, creative journeys of your own, those line drawings rather stirring the senses, connecting the reader to an old, but living history, in a way which artfully arranged, sumptuous colour photos of perfume bottles and ingredients could never do.

Aftel shows herself to have style and she shows herself to have substance.

Originally, Mandy Aftel, a highly respected American Artisan perfumer, was a psychotherapist, and what really appeals to me in her fascinating books is the reverse of the pile em high, whack em out ephemeral approach to instaperfume fashion. What insinuates from her books is relationship, a kind of development and connection which comes from the fact that she works with natural materials.

Fragrant, divided into 6 chapters, 5 of which place a particular plant and the fragrant material it produces, centre stage is an invitation to journey in time and in space with the material itself, and those who have tended it, prized it, grown it, harvested it, worked with it, transported it, thought about it and worn it.

There is something very special about a perfume from natural ingredients only. Firstly, it can never be standardised, and for some of us, that is a major part of its allure. The plant an essential oil or absolute may have been extracted from will have been a living, responsive entity. A batch of essential oil bought from this supplier, this year, from this place, will be somewhat different from the batch bought from the same supplier, from the same grower, last year, as the plant will be producing subtly varying chemistry, in response to this year’s changed growing conditions.

We might expect sumptious perfumes to have some of this

Aftel’s book invites reflection. Her major star playing aromatics, each of which indicates different facets about our relationship with aromatics, are Cinnamon (the once, highly exotic, call to adventure and the spice trade) Mint (home, the familiar, the cottage garden, the everyday – home) Frankincense, (the search to transcend, to interconnect, to find spirit) Ambergris (the frankly weird, a vomited up exudate from sperm whales, acted on by wind, water wave, sun to, if the finder is lucky, turn to monetary gold) and finally, Jasmine (the gorgeous, the provocative, the sensuous delight) Around these star players are others, and, also instructions to encourage the fragrantly curious to experiment, to source, to make your own.

£7000 worth of beachcombed dried whale vomit is a bit more surprising!

A bibliography invites further fragrant journeys, too

I also recommend her Essence and Alchemy which I reviewed last year

Oh lucky Statesiders, Aftel runs courses. She also will design you a bespoke perfume, but it must be done face to face – she leads you snuffling through her treasure chest of aromatics. She does also retail her existing perfume range, at reasonable prices (unlike the bespokes, which of course are a unique creation for a single user) Alas, I would have loved to purchase small samples of her existing perfumes, but shipping costs to the UK are savage. Not to mention our Brexited weak and wibbly pound

Go explore her website

Fragrant Amazon UK
Fragrant Amazon USA

Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time

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Making the past sing a relevant song

It has been a real delight to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time again, as part of Kaggsy’s bookish rambling’s ‘1951 club’ I came across this first in my teens and it was one of those books which stayed with me, as one of my favourite books in the genre ‘Crime Fiction’ Probably because it wasn’t about fictional crime at all (but more, later) – I had a kind of squeam about loving descriptions of bludgeonings and hackings – but was about a historical mystery – so it might be, (it is!) educational as well as entertaining

Tey, a jolly good writer of mysteries and detection, fascinated by psychology, and not dwelling overmuch in bloody gore, uses the crime fiction genre to deconstruct a historical villain – or, at least, one who has come down to us as villain – Richard III. The one who had the innocent lamb sons of his brother, Edward IV, brutally done to death in the Tower. The vile and hunchbacked monster so memorably portrayed by Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s play of the same name:

Now is the win-ter of our dis-con-tent
Made glorious sum-mer by this son of York

There continues a soliloquy full of great self-loathing, bitterness and grimness, giving the psychology in a nutshell which will let the audience know the man is a monster and will be prepared for the most heinous of misdeeds

………………………………………………..I
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determin-ed to prove a villain.

Earliest surviving portrait, circa 1520, copy of a previous

Shakespeare, of course, our wonderful Shakespeare, was living in Tudor times, Specifically, Elizabethan. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, bluff King Hal, wife murderer, son of Henry VIIth, first Tudor, the one who had killed the vile Richard in 1485 ‘ ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse……..’ at the battle of Bosworth. Henry VII, saviour we are told, ended the ruination of The Wars of The Roses, uniting the Yorkists (of whose number Richard was) and the Lancastrians (of whom Henry was a distant claimant to be king) by marrying the lambkin princes’ sister Elizabeth. Hurrah, rescuing us all from the wicked Uncle Richard, who had murdered his nephews.

Except – Shakespeare takes his history from Holinshed, who takes his history from the sainted Sir Thomas More. Who lived through these times…….except, he was 5 when Richard came to the throne, and 8 when he died. Thomas More was a Tudor made man. And history, as we know, is written by the victors.

Interestingly the Shakespeare ‘I am a nasty piece of work’ opening soliloquy suggests prematurity

                                               sent before my time Into this breathing world

yet the equal and opposite ‘man was a monster’ myth was that his mother, Cecily Neville has been pregnant with him for 2 years and he was born with a full head of black hair and a mouth full of teeth!

Re-reading this marvellously entertainingly presented history lesson this time, forcefully struck me by its topicality. Tey does not just look at the creation of ‘false news’ in Richard’s time – or, to be more honest, in Henry’s time, but scattered through these pages is evidence of a lot more ‘false news’ some of it twentieth century, and always produced for political/power capital

She uses a great device here – her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is laid up in bed, flat on his back – for weeks – in hospital, following a severely broken leg, falling through a trap-door, chasing a villain.

This inevitably made me laugh a little wryly. This book was published in 1951. The NHS would have been very young. And perhaps Inspector Grant was quite unusual and maybe of some means. Laid up for weeks in hospital? In a private room? How times have probably changed. I doubt most Inspectors or most anyone would either find private insurance schemes keeping them in bed in a single room for some weeks. Okay, medicine has also moved on and perhaps a badly broken leg is otherwise more speedily mended

Alan Grant does, however, move amongst the cultured great and good, as a good friend is a celebrity West End actress, much admired, who visits him in hospital. Seeking to relieve his grumpy boredom, and knowing his interest in faces, she picks up a job lot of historical portrait photos from another good chum who works fairly high-up at the V + A. One of the portraits is of Richard, and Grant becomes fascinated by the mismatch between the historical monster and his face (mind you, the best known portrait was also painted around 100 years after his death!)

Tey slides in the historical information as Grant investigates (with a tame American researcher who looks like a woolly lamb) in a very easy to assimilate fashion, by the introduction of memorable well drawn secondary characters, including the hospital staff, with whom Grant can be ‘undry’

And the reader (well this one) becomes as eager to unravel a historical mystery as Grant.

Of course, it turns out that the theory Tey is proposing is not (and was not) a new one, at the time of her writing, but she probably did a lot to begin to rescue Richard’s reputation, because she was a popular crime fiction writer.

There have been, since, other historical writers – Alison Weir for one, – who challenge the conclusions Tey makes, many of which came from a 1906 book by Clements Markham.

I wonder how many people became fascinated by history, due to an early exposure to Tey’s book.

The writer herself was born Elizabeth Mackintosh and died in 1952 She had two pen names, Josephine Tey, as here, and as the playwright Gordon Daviot

This book has achieved enduring popularity, voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association, in 1990, and, in a 1995 American Poll of The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America it held the 4th position

The recent discovery of the skeleton buried under a Leicester car park, identified as Richard’s from mitochondrial DNA analysis comparison with a sample analysed from that of a known descendant ,  shows that Richard was not a hunchback (probable Tudor paint-the-monster invention). He did have scoliosis, a fairly common twisting of the spine away from a perfect perpendicular, but this would not (given the degree of it) been visible from observation of the clothed person

I can see how this book would particularly appeal to late teens and twenties readers, who often have a strong sense of the wrongs of injustice, as the whole search for ‘the truth’ by Grant, and his woolly lamb American researcher Brent Carradine, is ‘un-dry’ precisely because of the passionate intensity to right a wrong.

The Daughter of Time Amazon UK
The Daughter of Time Amazon USA

Elizabeth Kostova – The Shadow Land

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Putting away childish tales of dark mythology: Twentieth Century History has darker shadows

the-shadow-landOnce I had let go of my expectations and the still resonant allure of Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, I surrendered totally to a tale far darker, and far more needing-to-be-told, a warning note echoing beyond the pages of fiction

I started this, given the setting, and the publisher blurb : “From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country” with an erroneous assumption that those ‘dark secrets’ would be, like The Historian, some of the ones from myth and long ago times. Particularly as, deliberately or not, there are a few hints and reminders which might indicate that we could be in Undead territory. Instead, what unfolds is something far more serious, far more potent, far more relevant, reminding us that tales of myth, magic and legend may perhaps be curious and safe entertainment, fantasy horrors, protecting us from the real horrors which we visit on each other in the name of ideology

Set in the first decade of this century, Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman with the desire to be a writer, and with a tragedy in her own past, arrives in Bulgaria, a country with a personal resonance from her childhood, in order to take up a teaching/study assignment.

Boyd has an accidental tangle with a charismatic older man and his two elderly companions, on her first arrival. In seeking to help the elderly couple, clearly in some difficulty, get a taxi, and help the three to load their various bags into the taxi, Boyd finds to her horror that she seems to have mixed up one of their bags, with her own. In a strange country, without knowing the language, she does not quite know what to do, how to find the threesome, how best to get the missing luggage back to them. Although clearly a kindly young woman, she is also mesmerised by the English speaking man accompanying the elderly couple, so this fires her desire to find the trio and return the missing item, one which is unusual, and highly significant.

He was a very good man who thought he was a very bad man. That is a -difficult combination…..Sometimes – sometimes we know a person who is a very bad man but who thinks he is a good man. Maybe that is even more bad. Even worse. Worse, because the bad man, who thinks he is good, thinks that he can do anything to anybody

Boyd engages a waiting taxi driver, a rather mysterious one, who not only speaks English, but is curiously willing to help her………….

Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

                           Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

And thus unfolds a mystery, where nothing is going to be quite what it seems (including this reader’s assumptions about ‘Bulgaria’s dark secrets’ The twentieth century, unfortunately, is full of dark secrets, most around politics, systems, ideologies and regimes: the pursuit of power and the lengths some will go to achieve it.

I have often thought that the terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other

Having started this in the hope of some kind of intelligent, beautifully written page turner about mythic, medieval history, and a modern woman on a search for a legendary, imaginative past, to help distract me from the present, I found instead something which made me wonder more about a future I hope we are not travelling towards, with various unprincipled, ferociously egotistic men occupying political power at this time.

I think young people now don’t know much about those times, or don’t understand – they think it’s always been as it is now, the mobile phones and friends on the Internet and lots of people going to other countries to work

I found, for sure, an intelligent, beautifully written page turner about all too real history: the shadow of the last war, the shadow of the communist bloc, and some of those who moved into power (and where from) after the Berlin wall came down.

There is a lot in here which recounts that horrific history, as Kostova pursues a tale which is at times in two times – the early fifties, and the first decade of the twentyfirst century. It is excellently done, and even though the story takes a little while to get its real momentum going, it is quietly gripping from the start – and then relentlessly gripping. There are some real surprises too. Nor is the story unremittingly dark. As ever, human heart, the kindness within, and the various redemptive paths humankind take to try and walk away from our shadows, is a kind of compass to true North. And art is one of those needles for true North – music, visual art, literature, poetry especially – a search for transcendence and life of the spirit.kostovaelizabeth

And, in the end, I think Kostova has here, written something more powerful.

The traditional music of Bulgaria is not an integral part of this book, but I can’t resist a chance to include it. An extraordinary tradition, suffused with sadness, laced with aliveness

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley. And it is published on April 11th

The Shadow Land Amazon UK
The Shadow Land Amazon USA

Arvo Pärt – Passio

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Humility, surrender, transcendence

Arvo Pärt’s transcendent music is always a deep experience, demanding attention and engagement from the listener. And whilst the musical lines may seem simple, they are not simplistic, and leave nowhere for musician or singer to hide. Without fidelity and surrender, his music can seem like some kind of technical exercise. Which is very very far from what it is.

Being lucky enough to attend a recent concert performance of Passio, sent me back to listen to The Hilliard Ensemble rendition, conductor Paul Hillier. This is a long piece, and not one for our InstaGratification Hummable Tunes culture. It is not, in any way, a ‘background piece’ and unfolds itself through its single, 70 minute, unbroken movement. How can ‘The Passion’ be properly realised, glimmeringly felt, if the journey is not undertaken, and ‘snapshot moments’ only are listened to on the hoof?

This music in its purity and careful threading and weaving, requires an extraordinary precision and control to hold the length, flow and placement of the close, dissonant harmonies.

From the crushing, almost overwhelmingly heavy opening of the piece, hopeless, doom laden, arises beautiful, single threads of music and voices, offering, surely some tenderness, some way out of despair, despite suffering. The bass, solo lines of Jesus are steadfast and firm, and musically give a kind of foundation for the other voices, and musical lines to relate to. To sorrowfully, tenderly, and in the end – not quite triumphally, but with the possibility of achieving something hopeful, out of pain, out of despair, soar. The end both breaks, and releases, the heart.

This is indeed a fabulous rendition. Though the experience, of course, of a live performance – The Façade Ensemble, conductor Benedict Collins Rice, offers an intensity that solitary attentiveness to a recording, can never do

This particular version may no longer be easily available as a new CD, though market place (used) copies are available or download on MP3. And of course, though the technical quality might be somewhat flawed, you can at least hear it on You Tube

The Hilliard Ensemble, alas, disbanded three years ago. Oh that I had ever heard them deliver this live!Paul Hillier was a founder member of The Hilliards and, later of Theatre of Voices. Hilliard was named for the Elizabethan miniaturist, I believe, rather than for Hillier, though perhaps the connection suggested itself

Arvo Pärt Passio Amazon UK
Arvo Pärt Passio Amazon USA

Carol Dyhouse – Heartthrobs

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Sardonic, sneering, wealthy, and wearing immaculate linen. Preferably ruffled.

Carol Dyhouse’s Heartthrobs, A History of Women and Desire, looking at the possibly changing faces of masculine desirability, as expressed in literature, film and pop culture is interesting, though I’m not certain it is really saying anything particularly new. She certainly backs up what she chooses to say by reference to much other material. Heartthrobs is 190 pages, plus a full 50 pages of cited references plus 7 of index.

Tracing the changing views of sexy, desirable men, from the earliest of novels (whether written by men, or particularly, women) we are shown that, whether in Richardson’s Pamela, the first novel, Austen’s novels, (especially Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy, the pinnacle of desirability) or Bronte’s, what set female hearts a flutter was a dominant, dominating, often ‘sardonic’ (a favourite adjective) on the verge of cruel, man, ultimately to be tamed, reformed in some way by the virtuous love of a good woman. Love tames the beast into marriage. And, rescuing him from being merely bestial, was of course, wealth. Easy to see why, in a time when a woman’s ability to make wealth for herself was lacking. So it is a little depressing to see how little has changed….she reminds the reader of a more than on the verge of cruel man in that runaway viral success, 50 Shades of Grey. What of course stopped the – I can’t bring myself to name him hero – of that, from merely being a thug, was – (sighs) wealth and fine linen denoting wealth, rather than grubby grease stained overalls.

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, throbbing

Others, in films, followed the trend, from Valentino to Rhett Butler. I found it interesting, and, depressing too, as explained with Valentino (The Sheik) though his Arabian mien is exotic, and in part gives his allure, it was necessary that the character turned out to have Caucasian ancestry – there was, surely, an inherent racism in this.

Later sections in the book look at sexual desire in early teens and pre-teens, and examines the pretty boy/boy band phenomenon – David Cassidy is particularly focused on – the allure for his young fans his unthreatening, androgynous, not quite developed sexuality. It’s the other end of the spectrum from the adult female’s object of desire who masters.

Unknown man wearing a fine linen shirt. Not many ruffles though.

There are some amusing anecdotes – I particularly enjoyed the revelation of the potency of Austen’s Darcy – perhaps not unconnected with Colin Firth’s wet shirt, but, of course, P+P was an enduring literary romance before THAT BBC adaptation – as evidenced by the following quote :

scientists working on pheromones in mice discovered a protein in the urine of the male mouse which was irresistible to females. They named it after Jane Austen’s character.’Darcin’. There are many ways in which Darcy has proved a money spinner

I received this from Amazon Vine UK, as a review copy. The text also has some great black and white illustrations showing the changing appearance of ‘throbs’ (and melting women) though these are done as text page pictures, rather than photos. There are some wonderful illustrations from ‘Romance Magazines/stories from early in the twentieth century, and pin-ups of the nineteenth century – portraits of Nelson and Wellington (!).

It is available as wood book and digital download in the UK, but Stateside, though available on Kindle does not get published in hard copy till next month

Heartthrobs Amazon UK
Heartthrobs Amazon USA

Colin Dexter – Last Bus to Woodstock

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The first Morse and Lewis vehicle: Nothing to do with Joni Mitchell!

I have never read any of this series, and only ever caught one or two episodes of the TV series (though I might now watch as comparison, at some point), so it was interesting to come purely to the book. Where I found things to enjoy, and some things, not so much

The not so much can be encapsulated in a following quote. The crime to be unravelled is the rape and murder of a young woman, whose body is discovered in a car park. Inspector Morse is leading the investigation, and at one point, trying to disentangle events and clarify the identity of the murderer says to Sergeant Lewis:

Raping isn’t easy they tell me if the young lady isn’t too willing

Now I have no idea, given that this is the first in the series, whether this reflects the author’s belief at the time of writing (initially published in 1975), police thinking at the time, or Morse’s own erroneous belief, and whether this is something which will further develop. The statement is presented really without comment on it.

One of the things I did like very much was the absence of much gratuitous and violent sexual detail. Whilst I don’t think that a statement as above would get by without some character challenging or commenting on that statement, or authorial distance from it being obvious, something negative which has happened in intervening years in crime fiction is a lurid, titillating approach to sex and violence being wreaked upon women, the serial killer on the loose fiction genre. Graphic description seems commonplace, and is constantly ratchetted up. Dexter focuses here far less on indulging a kind of voyeuristic prurience, and far more on the more mainstream reasons why someone might be driven to murder.

Something else I liked enormously, is of course that this is indeed a novel of relationship and character, as much as police procedural, and it is easy to see why this did indeed make for an ongoing series of books, and of course, that TV series. Here is book 1 is already a wonderfully layered relationship getting going between Morse and Lewis, between someone who seems absolutely settled as a moral touchstone, and someone who perhaps struggles more with the challenges of what it means to be human, and in relationship with others.

And, (hurrah) shot through the grim business of dealing with crime on a daily basis, is of course the necessary leaven on humour. Sometimes this is given by characters, who have their own flashes of humour, and sometimes it is Dexter himself:

..studio 2 in Walton Street was presenting a double sexploitation bill whose titles were calculated to titillate even the most jaded appetite. The first, 20.0-3.05 p.m. was Danish Blue (not, judging from the mounds of female flesh that burst their bounds in the stills outside, a film about the manufacturing of cheese)

not to mention the following little gem:

the police car parked itself, with no objection from porters, orderlies or traffic wardens, on a broad stretch of concrete marked ‘Ambulances Only’. A policeman’s parking lot was sometimes not an unhappy one

Such lightly thrown wordplay as the last is likely to see me wanting to go further with this series. Yes, there is some slightly clunky writing, particularly in dialogue (as I think my first quote also shows) but The Last Bus to Woodstock kept me hooked and interested.

However……it is immediately obvious that there are remarkable differences between book and TV adaptation. Not least of which is the age differential between the two central characters. Morse is first introduced to us as a lightly built, dark-haired man. Various other descriptors suggest a younger man, not to mention one who wears a degree of testosterone on his sleeves!

Last Bus to Woodstock Amazon UK
Last Bus to Woodstock Amazon USA

Mick Herron – Spook Street

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Fantastic, breathtaking, audacious and exhausting – but read the series in order for maximum enjoyment

Introducing Slough House and the Slow Horses for those coming to the series via Book 4 I though I strongly suggest, starting with book 1, and getting to this one in sequence:

The series follows a group of Z lister sppoks, and also the high fliers of the A listers of MI5, who run policy and do the high octane stuff. Slough House is where former MI5 personnel, who have fouled up in some way either through character defects or evidence of some kind of incompetence, are put out to paid grass. Someone has to do the boring stuff of videocam checks, and trawl through vehicle licence plates and phone records, and getting the disgraced ‘Slow Horses’ to do this, stops redundancy pay outs and legal cases. Chances are, the Slow Horse will resign due to extreme tedium, hence, no payout, and there will always be others to demote to Horsedom. To a man and woman, the Slow Horses regret their prior high flying status, and hope against hope that some kind of saving the world and defence of the realm activity will come their way, and they might, therefore return to the fold of MI5. In their own way, each of this fascinating group of misfits is more than capable

They are led by a monstrous, Rabelasian (at least in turns of various odoriferous bodily emissions and capacity to indulge alcohol, junk food and tobacco) man, Jackson Lamb. Lamb is the least lamb like creature imaginable. Irascible, bullying, grubby, obnoxious and lethal, sharp as a whole army of lasers and with, despite his lack of obvious appeal, a great loyalty to the band of ‘joes’ he rules and insults. Despite the drudgery of desk work, the Slow Horses are still involved in dangerous activities. Over the course of the books some have died, new characters have come to take their places, and some, there from the start, are still with us, though the danger of their work makes the reader wonder from whence the heartache of losing a strange old friend from an earlier book, will come

Herron brings different Horses into the leaders of each book’s race, and some characters met much earlier might be very very slow horses, waiting their turn to gallop to the death or marginal glory finish.

Central to this book is the aging David Cartwright. Almost ‘First Desk’ during the Cold War, he is now living in quiet retirement in the country, beginning to slide into dementia. An elderly spook, becoming loose lipped and garrulous might have dangerous secrets to unwittingly spill. And there might be several interested in plugging such a leak before it happens.

I must confess to some small disappointment with the previous book in the series, Real Tigers, though not disappointed enough to not want to proceed on to the next.

Dazzle Ship – H.M.S. President

Very happily, Spook Street has gone stratospheric in my estimation. So stratospheric that I had to stop reading at times because Herron had taken me to a place where I hardly dared to advance, because of fear and grief of what might be to come. A writer does something particularly brilliant when they take a reader to a place of ‘in denial’ – I don’t think I can bear to know more, I can’t bear to not know. Suspense, anxiety, on the edge.

All through the series, from the very first page of Slow Horses, Herron has thrown justified shocks, surprises, feints, and reverses at his readers. This one though, has him pretty well surpassing himself, because, of course, we are now invested in each Slow Horse.

As ever I can’t give any information (or very little) on this one, as each reader deserves to read in innocence, in order to get the greatest level of involvement and commitment to each of Herron’s wonderful cast of characters

As in book 3 the main focus from which danger and bad deeds arise is internal – from within the organisation itself, where various individuals struggle for higher status and power over others. Some of the usual suspects are still to be found within MI5, but others are on the rise or fall. Danger of course also lurks without, from those who seek to undermine the system, but some of those within have shady ways of protecting the system, and shadier ways still of protecting their own selves.

The Horses themselves, flawed, flatulent, antisocial and strange as they may be, are still the ones with moral compasses – more than others who stalk these pages, they have a loyalty to each other, however much each of them may violently dislike or despise a fellow Horse

And London itself, as so often, is a major character in this book, in both her grime and her splendour

I am minded, whilst we now have a protracted wait whilst Herron decides how much further to ride his horses, to start a prior series by him, following the fortunes of a private detective, but with, no doubt his trademark signatures of sharp writing, wit, danger, strong characterisation, twisty plot – and surprises a plenty

I received this, as a serendipitous ARC from Amazon Vine. It certainly looked like an example of meaningful targeting as I bought books 1,2, and 3 in the series in extremely rapid succession. Payback time now though…as this one has only recently been published…now all I can do is wait. I hope Herron is writing, writing, writing

Spook Street Amazon UK
Spook Street Amazon USA

Sara Taylor – The Lauras

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“home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy” : A story of wanderings

Sara Taylor’s first novel, The Shore was a stunning debut, a collection of individual stories which were interweaving, deeply entangled exploring the history and geography of a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and the families and their descendants who marked the place, and were marked by it

So I was extremely interested (and with some trepidation) to read her ‘can you follow THAT – always a challenge when a debut writer sets a very high standard for themselves to meet again.

Well, I need not have worried. The Lauras is a very different book, but it is equally immersive, equally assured, equally wonderful.

Out of the dark, foaming ocean a sun was rising, massive and red. It balanced on the black line of the horizon and spilled its blood across the sky, tore the scudding clouds with pink and caked the wet sand, and for a moment, I wondered if, in the course of my sleeping, we’d made it to the end of the world, where the sun rose out of the ocean like a newborn thing in the way I’d always imagined seeing but never had

“Where are we?” I asked

“Florida,” she said

Taylor, originally from rural Virginia, clearly has a love of the landscape of her country, and this is evidenced in this book, effectively, a mother and child road trip. However, Taylor chose to complete her education in the UK, where she now lives, so she also brings that interesting outsider’s eye to her native country. Something being explored here, in many ways, is identity, and those who, in different ways, do not fit into the world which mainstream cultural thinking, and existing structures, have designed. Her interest is in misfits – which to some extent must mean almost all of us. Few are perfectly round pegs easily happy in perfectly round holes.

The mother in this story is clearly an outsider – child of Sicilian immigrants, she is not quite Sicilian, not quite American. Circumstances led to her having a wild, disrupted childhood, and she was fostered. The road trip is towards a journey back to her own past. She is married, with a thirteen year old child, but the marriage is foundering. Alex, the 13 year old is torn between whether to follow mother or father as the primary identity role model, as children of breaking marriages often can be. Ma rather takes matters into her own hands, following a particular row. She has been planning on escaping this marriage for some time, and has had hidden bags packed in readiness. Alex is scooped up in the middle of the night, without really knowing what is going on, and the two set out on a two year and more road trip, sometimes hunkering down so Alex’s schooling can continue, whilst Ma works at menial jobs. She is searching for some specific friends from childhood and young womanhood. Friends, and more than friends. Ma has a fluidity around her sexual orientation as well as her nationality and cultural identification. Coincidentally a few of the early significant friends were called Laura, so the name has acquired potency.

Ma and Alex are dependent on the kindness of strangers, at times, but are also at risk from the unkindness of others, and sometimes, they will have to be the ones offering kindness, or seeking to right wrongs and dispense rough justice

Narrator, now an adult, looking back some quarter of a century, is Alex, so the narrative voice is adolescence through the filter of maturity

Memory is slippery, not even like a fish but like an eel, like an ice cube, like a clot of blood whose membranous skin can barely contain internal shifting liquidity. It’s something that, the firmer you try to grasp it, the weaker the hold you have on it, the less trustworthy it becomes. But it doesn’t matter what really happened, does it? Reality matters less than how it is perceived, that edge or feather or scale that you catch onto as it flickers by. And after a year or ten in a dingy pocket who can say if it was a lizard’s scale or a dragon’s in the first place?

Unfortunately, so very much about this book might be spoiled for a reader if further information is given, yet I’m aware that a review this evasive or woolly might fail to lure a potential reader. I will have to err on the side of evasion. Like things are in this book for Alex, who does not know the destination Ma is heading for, it is the unknown journey – road, or book, which is the point. Naming, defining, holding out signposts for readers would be destructive

Humans – most of us, at least – have the incapability of pondering the really terrifying things for any serious length of time. It’s probably what keeps us from throwing ourselves off cliffs in mass fits of existential crisis

Taylor tells a wonderful story, and her writing of it is beautiful, crafted, sure.

I recommend this very strongly. I read it in digital version for review, from the publishers via NetGalley

I await Taylor’s next book with even higher hopes. Tremendous

The Lauras Amazon UK
The Lauras Amazon USA

Samer – The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’

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Hard to read, unbearable to write, unimaginable to live through

This is one of those books that any reader must wish had never needed to be written. ‘Samer’ is the pseudonym of a young man, living in Raqqa, who was part of a resistance group within Syria, struggling to survive under the harshness of the Assad regime, and then struggling to survive after Daesh captured the city. The small group he belonged to were endeavouring to let people in the outside world know what their terrifying existence had become.

In Raqqa controlled Daesh, communicating with the western media is punishable by beheading. And of course, Western journalists are not allowed into the city. Those who are determined that the outside world should be aware of what their lives are like are in permanent danger of discovery, permanent danger of death, and also place their families in danger. It is a vicious choice to have to make, bearing witness seems the only possibility of any kind of less bleak future. The activist group Samer belonged to had made contact with the BBC. Samer’s resistance was to keep a journal of events (something, of course, punishable by death)

The journal was published after his escape from Raqqa – his present whereabouts are in a refugee camp in northern Syria.

I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher via Netgalley. It is a book I did not want to read, but felt I must

Samer tells the bleakness of his country’s present story simply. Too much of what happens is unbearable to linger on, and, living amid horror I suspect that allowing full realisation in would make surviving impossible. There is only so much pain which can be borne. Here is the experience of one who should have been an ordinary young man, one who loves his country, his family, his friends, his religion, one with ordinary hopes for an ordinary future. Exceptional events, orchestrated by terrible people, have forced ordinary people into making heartbreaking choices – for Samer, telling this story meant a certain death, and leaving his country, his family, his friends, was the hard choice. Resistance is the act of bearing witness.

Illustration by Scott Coello

Line drawings by Scott Coello are similarly spare. Samer’s diary is translated by Nader Ibrahim. Excerpts were originally broadcast on Radio 4.

The Raqqa Diaries Amazon UK
The Raqqa Diaries Amazon USA