While I am still busy working away on building a website for a charity, I don’t want to totally ignore this blog, so here is a link to a rather good guide in the Daily Telegraph to the top 15 Most Depressing Books. You may not agree with the choices, but it’s a well executed article and the comments from readers are fun too.
I think 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade is probably the worst with, “its repetitive catalogue of violent abuse – the defilements, the disfigurements – will turn your stomach”. Whether Jude the Obscure should be in the list I’m not sure – I thought it was pretty good myself. And surely Sebald’s Austerlitz should win the prize for THE most depressing read (although I feature it as one of my best ever books with a perhaps overlong article here).
The charity website seems to be taking me ages to build. I’ve created 35 pages, but with a workers in Britain, Peru and Tanzania who all need to see the drafts and make comments, the logistics of getting approvals for all the items are not that simple. It’s very rewarding work though and I’ve learned huge amounts about some quite tekkie topics like PHP scripts, sliding photo panels and cascading style sheets. I think I’ve got another month or so’s work yet, but hope to publish a couple of book reviews in the next fortnight.
Down on the South Coast we’ve had some pretty stormy weather lately but there have been some good days between the gales and here are a couple of photos taken from the beaches near here (they’re watermarked Green Explorer because that’s my username on a photo-sharing site).
Newhaven from Tide Mills beach
Dredging the channel into Newhaven Port so that the French ferries can come in
I hope everyone is enjoying life and reading lots of good books. Having just finished quite a serious new book by Tim Pears, I’m now having a great time with Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole – The Prostrate Years which is very funny indeed.
I’ve never read a book by Peter May before but have heard such enthusiastic opinions of his writing that I thought I would try his latest novel, Entry Island. Peter May’s most successful books take place in his native Scotland (although he has a series about a Chinese detective). For Entry Island however, Peter May crosses the Atlantic to Canada where he links a classic murder mystery with an account of the Scottish Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century, during which local populations were forcibly exiled to a new life in the Americas.
The story takes place in two locations. In the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence a murder has taken place – a wealthy businessman has been knifed to death, the only witness being his wife who is also covered in blood and soon becomes the prime suspect. Two hundred years earlier we read of the forced clearances in the Scottish Outer Hebridean islands and the impact on one man in particular who flees to the Magdalen Islands, initiating a series of events which hold the key to the current murder.
The two stories run alongside each other and readers can see the gradual converging of events without realising quite how they are going to come together. The denouement when it comes is as satisfying as you might expect and left me full of admiration for Peter May’s skills as a writer with great skills in managing such a complex, multi-threaded plot.
As is often the case in books like this we have a highly dysfunctional detective in the person of Sime Mackenzie. Sime has had a series of difficult relationships and has recently suffered a broken marriage. He works in Montreal as an investigator and is surprised when he is called to his Captain’s office one day to be told that he is to join a team to investigate and apparently open and shut murder case on Île d’Entrée, an island in a small archipelago 850 miles away. Much to Sime’s dismay, the Captain tells him that the crime scene investigator is his ex-wife Marie-Ange, with whom he now has a very painful relationship.
Click here to continue reading Review: Entry Island – Peter May
I apologise to my readers once again for the infrequency of my posts at the moment. When I took on the job of creating a website for a charity I hadn’t really taken on board the size of the task, and while I’m really enjoying doing it, my book reviewing has taken a hit while I spend an hour or so every day working with Serif WebPlus to create the new website.
While I’m here, I’d like to wish all my contacts a very happy Christmas. I hope you get the books you want and that you find plenty of time to read them.
I’ve not read a John Grisham novel for a very long time but was tempted by his new book Sycamore Row which is a sequel to his very first book published in 1989, A Time to Kill. In the first novel we see young attorney Jake Brignance defending Carl Lee Hailey, who has murdered two white racists who have raped and terribly injured his ten-year old daughter. Jake takes on Carl Lee’s defence but as a result, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan pursue a vendetta against him, leading to Jake being shot at and his house and property torched. A Time to Kill made John Grisham’s name as a crime writer unafraid to tackle the most inflammatory topics and he has had a hugely successful career as a result, publishing about 30 best-selling novels.
It has taken John Grisham 25 years to return to Ford County but the events described in it happened only three years on from those in A Time to Kill. Let’s set the scene by quoting an article in the Washington Post which describes Ford County perfectly:
The little town is surrounded by rural enclaves, woods and farmland, acreage that shelters poor farmers but is also coveted by shady developers. The streets of Clanton are lined on one side with the mansions of old white landowners and on the other with the modest homes of African-Americans who have lived there as long as the gouging landowners. It’s a microcosm of America — at least of those citizens who haven’t run off to the anonymity of big-city life and all the daydreams of urban success.
Click here to continue reading Review: Sycamore Row – John Grisham
Once again at this time of year I would like to promote Book Aid International who increase access to books and support literacy, education and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Book Aid operate a Reverse Book Club – you subscribe, they give the books to someone else!
I find it hard to conceive of a classroom without books but Book Aid sends books to countries where over 50% of primary school pupils learn in classrooms where there isn’t a single book.
They have just issued a video of their work during 2013 which makes for inspiring viewing.
Being a subscriber to the daily English-language news review from German magazine Der Spiegel I was delighted to hear that one of their writers, David Crosland, had published a novel tackling the topic of the Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, The Jewish Candidate. Although this book may seem a little implausible (the rise of a new “Hitler” type character in modern Germany), anyone who reads Der Spiegel regularly will know that the Neo-Nazi movement has significant support in Germany, particularly in the East and is a constant concern to the authorities (see for example this article in Der Spiegel, Germany’s Risky Push to Outlaw Far Right Party).
Crosland’s book covers an election campaign in Germany, in which Rudolf Gutman, a German Jew is standing for election to the post of Chancellor. Standing against him is Hermann von Tietjen who uses a full set of “dirty tricks” to oppose Gutman. von Tietjen’s main enemy is the Muslim minority in Germany and he uses various tactics to whip up hatred for the Muslim minority and also to threaten the Jewish Gutman.
The story is told by Frank Carver, a British reporter who is covering the electtion campaign for the fictitious London Chronicle. Carver gets into various scrapes as he infiltrates neo-Nazi meetings and confronts the leaders of the movement. Before long he finds himself racing against time to foil a dreadful plot which could see von Tietjen massively increase his support.
My only quibble about the book is that David Crosland is not the greatest of writers. The book is “racy” but lacks style, and I found myself thinking that top writers like Philip Kerr, Gerald Seymour and Alan Furst would have made a better job of it. At times the sense of improbability was a little too great for me and I found myself in two minds whether to give up on it. However, the topicality of the story and the forward movement kept me going until the end. If I was to award three stars to the book, that would be cruel, but four gives seems rather too high because, although writer has a highly imaginative approach, the rather sensationalist writing style lets him down. One thing for sure, it would make a fantastic film.
I’d like to be able to write two articles a week as I have done over the last five or six years, but free time seems to have evaporated from my life over the last few months. It’s my own fault: after 30+ years working in the I.T industry, I still find myself fascinated by technology and when the opportunity came along to design a new website for a charity as a volunteer, I jumped at it, not quite realising how much work was involved. I find that I can do most of the work in the mornings between 7.30 and 9.30 (I don’t need a lot of sleep), but this of course is the time I devoted to this book blog. Never mind, this won’t go on forever and I hope that by about February I’ll have finished most of the web design work and will be able to come back to more regular book-reviewing.
The charity is Kiya Survivors, a charity founded by the remarkable Suzy Butler and now expanding rapidly in its work of helping Peruvian children with learning disabilities and autism. Their current website is on it’s last legs and is frequently down – you might be able to see it here but I wouldn’t guarantee it.
Something else which has taken up my time is the arrival of two new grand-sons, one from my daughter and one from my son’s wife. It’s been a joy to get involved in their tiny lives.
I have an in-built resistance to the current glut of self-help books on the subject of “happiness”. I’ve had a few of them sent to me and find them all very much the same, and I somehow doubt that you can learn to be happy by reading a book. Happiness is a nebulous thing anyway – most of us seem to be pretty content to bumble along feeling reasonable enough but also having no illusions that a state of constant happiness is either achievable or even desirable.
After all, isn’t a state of happiness only possible if you’ve known a corresponding period of unhappiness? We only enjoy weekends because we’ve had to go to work in the week. Before I ramble on too much, let me say that whatever my feelings about “happiness” books in general, I’m going to make an exception for this one, A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson.
The book is simple in concept. It contains 99 written accounts of times or things which made people happy, the “people” in this case being a wide and highly eclectic range of historic characters such as Robert Schumann, Anna Seward, John James Audubon, Montaigne, Horace, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Wordsworth and Anselm of Canterbury. Each episode is followed by a short commentary by George Myerson who tells his readers a little about the writers and fills out the context of the short pieces with information about what was going on in their lives at the time.
The result is rather like reading many short diary extracts, and reminded me a little of John Sutherland’s excellent anthology Love, Sex, Death and Words which provides a daily snapshot of an equally varied set of people (I have this book on my Kindle and often look up the entry for the current day). But with this Happiness book, I find that it does actually remind me to look for those little episodes in the day when everything comes together in a brief moment of calm. Click here to continue reading Review: A Private History of Happiness: George Myerson
The Discourtesy of Death is the fifth novel in Matthew Brodrick’s Father Anselm series in which Anselm, the barrister turned monk, takes on an investigation into the death of a famed ballet dancer. Did she die of the bowel cancer that was bound to take her in a few months time anyway, or was she helped to her grave by a concerned (or perhaps malicious) relative?
I have never read a Father Anselm novel before and was pleased to find that enough background material was provided in the earlier chapters for me to pick up his back-story without any difficulty. In this book, we see Anselm’s detective work receive a broader commission from his Prior; he is to take the “light of the monastery beyond the enclosure wall” by taking on cases “from anyone who contacts you, particularly regarding those who are on the margins of hope”.
Soon Father Anselm finds himself deeply involved with the families of two brothers, one of whom, Michael, is the bereaved father of the ballet dancer. Why is Michael on a mission with a Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol? And what does his brother Nigel know about this? Michael had to confront his own demons while serving with the Army in Northern Ireland as an intelligence officer and still bears the scars resulting from terrible decisions he had to make while combating the IRA. Is history repeating himself as he seeks the alleged killer of his daughter? Will Father Anselm be able to move the case forward quickly enough to prevent another disaster from happening?
Click here to continue reading Review: The Discourtesy of Death – William Brodrick
While I have been reading as much as ever, I have been so busy with other things that I’ve not really had time to write reviews for the last couple of months. For one thing, we have a new grandson, Arthur, and our daughter has needed help with the baby’s two sisters, Iris and Florence, who are both under five years old (leading to many afternoons surrounded by plastic bouncers, ball-pools and climbing frames in “Soft Play”). I’ve also taken on the creation of a website for a charity which is taking up huge amount of my time. However, I’ve found time today to write a review of a book which has consumed much of my attention for the last week and here it is:
I am one of the many people who have been waiting for years for Donna Tartt to bring out a novel equal to her first – The Secret History. Her Second Novel, The Little Friend, did not really hit the spot for me, although I read through it happily enough while waiting for the same literary buzz that The Secret History gave me. Now at last, Donna Tartt has met my expectations by producing this fantastic, nearly 800 page novel, The Goldfinch.
I was fortunate enough to see a review copy of the book and while I was initially daunted by the scale of the book (and not exactly attracted by the blurb on the cover), I started to read it and was immediately drawn in and captivated. There is something about good writing which makes is just as satisfying as a good meal. I found a sort of nourishment going on in my head as I read through Tartt’s elegant prose. It’s not just the elegance however, it’s the sheer pulsating interest of the book – this is the ultimate “good read” sought after by book-lovers the world over. Even the first chapter has an extremely dramatic event at it’s core, and straight away you find yourself wondering “where can this go to next”?
Many reviewers have suggested that there is a sort of Dickensian feel to this book for like Dickens, Tartt can delve into huge amount of detail without being boring. There are even some similarities between The Goldfinch and Great Expectations in the way that a young boy finds fame and fortune through an extremely convoluted route.
Although the book has an epic scale, it can also seem microscopic in the way the author recounts small episodes. A tour round an art gallery makes you feel that you are there yourself, and nobody reading this book will be able to resist seeking out the painting of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius on the website of The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in order to ponder the predicament of this tiny bird, chained to its perch.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
After his success with his 2011 Booker long-listed novel Derby Day, D J Taylor’s new novel, The Windsor Faction comes into the category of an “alternative history” novel – a historical novel in which some key event has been changed so that the author can explore what might have happened as events move into a previously uncharted course.
I find this sort of thing very interesting and have already this year read a novel on similar lines – C J Sansom’s Dominion, being a similarly well-written exploration of the political realities of the time. There have been many other books which examine similar scenarios, from Len Deighton’s SS-GB to Robert Harris’s book Fatherland.
With so many predecessors, one might think that D J Taylor would find it difficult to enter such a crowded market. However, in The Windsor Faction, he has taken a different approach to his more dramatic predecessors who described a full-scale invasion or occupation. Taylor has invented a far more subtle event than that; the death of Wallis Simpson just before the war, and the gradual out-working of the consequences as King Edward VIII remains on the throne (rather than abdicating) and provides a rallying point for those who wish to avoid war at all costs. While the death of Wallis Simpson is not exactly the flutter of a butterfly’s wing (so often quoted in the context of chaos theory), it turns out to be one of those relatively minor events, which works through the politics of the time to shift the course of governments.
The book opens in a villa in Colombo, Ceylon where Cynthia lives with her parents, her father a tea-planter and her mother an active member of the expatriate social scene. Cynthia spends her time playing tennis with the sons of government officials attending routine cocktail parties with her parent’s friends and passing the time with uninteresting sons and daughters of other colonial families. But war is looming, and the Kirkpatrick family return to Britain where Cynthia realises that her parents are at a loss as to how to fit back into London life. They suggest various options for their daughter such as a shooting trip to Scotland or visits to relatives in Yorkshire but . . .
. . . Cynthia, staring at them as they sat in their sun-haloes, white-faced, frightened and resentful, realised that she had no idea of the kind of people they were, or what they thought about anything, that there was a separateness about them that appalled her and in which, inevitably, she was complicit. I am a ghost, she thought, until the solidity of the room, the hardness of the chair in which she sat, and – a bit later – the distant whining of a siren broke the spell and drew her home.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Windsor Faction – D J Taylor
A new book from Pushkin Press is always welcome and in I Was Jack Mortimer, they have found a gem of a novel, written in 1933 but as fresh as anything written today. The book, a mixture of farce, murder mystery and character study is set in Vienna.
The book’s author Alexander Lernet-Holenia had an interesting life. As a conscript, he took part in the invasion of Poland but from this he wrote what is thought of as the only Austrian resistance novel which was banned by the government because it contained “an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition” (Wikipedia). He died in 1976 with a reputation for controversy which made him “the difficult old man of Austrian literature”.
Ferdinand Sponer, a young taxi driver picks up a fare outside the railway station who wants to go to the Bristol Hotel. When he arrives at the hotel, he turns to speak to the passenger and finds him dead with a bullet hole in his throat and other wounds leaking blood into the back of his cab.
Sponer’s efforts to tell the police are thwarted at every turn and realising how implausible his story is, he decides to dump the body in the Danube and forget the whole thing. Needless to say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong for Sponer. Before long, due to a convoluted series of events he finds himself taking on the identity of the dead man (thus the title of the book). I have to admire the author’s inventiveness as the story takes off on a wildly erratic route, with surprises at every turn.
Click here to continue reading Review: I Was Jack Mortimer – Alexander Lernet-Holenia