Friday 27 June 2014

Ostland - David Thomas

If what you are looking for is a historic police procedural that blossoms into an indictment of the horrific actions of the Einsatzgruppen in and around Minsk, then this is simply perfect. The book divides into almost three distinct sections. The first follows the historic war-crimes trial of Dr. Georg Heuser and his cronies in the early 1960's using actual court transcripts at times and following proceedings through the eyes of Dr Paula Siebert, a young lawyer investigating the crimes that took place in Minsk during the early 1940's. The second and third parts of the story are seen as almost a memoir written by Heuser; first charting how he came to be a rising star in the Brelin Kripo, helping to catch an infamous serial killer - The S-Bahn killer - a man who had an almost Ripperesque grip on Berlin during the late 1930's and up until his capture and execution in 1941. The second part of the memoir shows Heuser's descent into criminality as a SS Hauptsturmfuehrer in Ostland. The 'memoir' sections are quite brilliant in their convincing blend of horror at the atrocities going on around the young officer, and repeated insistence that he was 'only obeying orders'. This section manages, without lifting the onus of responsibility, to show how ordinary men are able to be twisted into committing the most atrocious acts of inhumanity; and how their warped sense of morality can lead them to see the most banal acts of kindness as great humane gestures. At times when reading this I couldn't help but think of the wonderful, but terrifying scene in the film Schindler's List when Amon Goeth shows 'mercy' for the failure of his slave to properly clean his bathtub. The moment when Goeth loses interest in this act of 'generosity' is portrayed with such chilling skill by Fiennes, as instead of offering a blessing to his own reflection he becomes caught up in his own need for a manicure. This same consummate skill was shown here in the duality of Heuser as he thinks to seduce a young woman he has just rescued from the death pits; as well as the way in which his lawyer's mind attempts to reconcile the criminality of what he is doing with his own moral code. At one point Heuser describes the hideousness of realising that the men he is now charged with killing are not 'less than fully human' as the propaganda states, but are in fact members of the Reich, men who have loved and served their homeland..

      'It was as though the who grotesque business were a gigantic experiment, conducted by a mad, all-powerful psychiatrist who sought to establish just what terrible sins once-decent men might be capable of if correctly manipulated. 'We have established that you can bring yourself to kill people who look and sound alien. Very well then, what if they look and sound just like you? what if they come from the same cities, even the same neighbourhoods - how will you manage then?''

It is a fact that the majority of the Einsatzgruppen in particular were ordinary men, often policemen used to upholding law and order, and that even the harshest amongst them found themselves reacting physically and mentally when confronted with the horrors or the Latvian and Belorussian campaigns. These men became inured to the horrors, certainly but they also became alcoholics; insomniac drunks haunted by the atrocities they had seen and done. It was due in part to the potential break down of moral and the mental state of the men taking these 'actions' that the idea of gas chambers was posed. Not only did the solution of gassing the victims meet with the approval of Heydrich on grounds of efficiency (quicker, higher volume mass murder possible and no expended bullets) but also it spared the men from having to witness the brutality of mass murder at close range. Even Heydrich recognised that 'good German men' would not be able to stand up to the strain of repeatedly shooting men, women and children in the back of the head for any extended period of time. This is the paradox that this novel explored quite brilliantly; that of the legal framework for mass murder, and of using men born to uphold justice to commit the worst offences. This book handles the issues involved wonderfully. If you are interested in any further reading on the subject, then like the author does in his afterword to Ostland, I have to recommend both Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning, and The Field Men: The SS Officers Who Led the Einsatzgruppen by French Maclean, both are fascinating studies of a truly horrific piece of recent history.

Forbidden Fruit; Letters from Abelard and Heloise

Reading this little book took far longer than I expected, not due to any issues with the book itself; it is a lovely addition to the 'Penguin Great Loves' collection. My problem came largely in the character of Abelard himself. I thought I knew and understood the tragedy of this story of love denied, and was really looking forward to reading the letters between the two lovers for the first time. However I had to put this one down for extended periods of time as I am getting too annoyed with the way in which Pierre Abelard presents himself. I am not sure that I didn't prefer the romantic illusions I had previously had about this 'great lover'. Reading his actual letters he come across as a deeply unpleasant, arrogant prat largely; he seems to have spent his early life making enemies mainly by humiliating as many learned men as he possibly could. It also seems that he set out to seduce Heloise, in order to prove that he could have the wisest woman in Christendom, not due to any grand overwhelming passion but just 'coz'. If I'm honest the more I read of this self satisfied idiot the more understanding I have of Fulbert's decision to castrate Abelard! 
In the end I struggled through the destruction of my romantic illusions about the pair and ended up giving the book a three star review. These three stars were for Penguin's lovely little edition of these letters and for the contribution of Heloise to the canon of medieval female literature. Abelard is the reason why this book could only get three stars.
Ever since I first heard the story of Abelard and Heloise as a romantic early teen I have wanted to read more than just extracts from the letters of these two. Usually when you come across extracts you will find that they come from letters written by Heloise, and I had always assumed that in order to inspire such devotion and such adoration Abelard must have had something pretty damn special to say too. How wrong I was, and how glad I am that I waited this long to be disillusioned about the 'romance' which evidently was Heloise adoring Abelard and Abelard adoring Abelard.
Judging from his written record Pierre Abelard was an egotistical and arrogant pr**k who spent his who time rushing around Paris pissing people off with his absolute and total disregard for the learning of anyone other than himself. If his letters are to be believed he decided, much like a medieval Valmont, to worm his way into Canon Fulbert's household simply so he could seduce Heloise, not due to any great passion for her (he decided on the seduction prior to having met her her it would seem) but simply because she was a young woman who was known for her learning and her virtue. Basically he wanted to prove that not only was he this 'great' philosopher but also a bit of a proto Casanova. Having read Abelard's letters I am suddenly left feeling a whole lot more sympathetic of Fulbert's revenge of a beating and castration. I have the feeling that many father's and guardians would feel the same way even today towards an arrogant creature like this having his way with a family member. So thanks Abelard, you have shattered one of my early romantic ideals :P!! Incidentally Heloise is now believed to have been around 27 years old at the time she met Abelard, not 15 as the biography given at the start of this edition would have us believe. The idea of her youth seems to have been introduced many centuries after the events and are not supported either by accounts of her age at death or by her being renowned as a great mind in medieval Paris, this change in understanding of her age is the one thing here that works in Abelard's favour, he may have been a prat, but at least when he decided to seduce someone it was a grown woman and not essentially a child.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Kindred - Octavia E.Butler

Having just finished this book I am left feeling rather conflicted. I really wanted to love it. I wanted it to be perfect, and now that I've finished it and, in my opinion, found it to be pretty flawed I am feeling bad. This may well be good old 'white liberal guilt' kicking in but there it is.
The concept sounded great, a contemporary (the book is set in 1976 and was first published in 1979) black woman, married to a white man in modern California is suddenly transported back through time and space to Antebellum Maryland, a slave state. Here she has to face the myriad dangers of being seen as a probable slave, only hoping that she will be able to get home to her own time. Unfortunately it didn't stand up as well as I had hoped it would. The writing seemed to be aimed at a young teen market, and if it wasn't for the frequent references to rape I would even go so far as to suggest it as suitable for mature pre-teens. There was little sophistication to the story, with no attempt at explaining why Dana should be drawn back into the past time after time beyond it being made clear that this happened to her when one of her 1819 ancestor's was in danger. No explanation was given about why she should be so totally linked to this particular individual, there were moments when other ancestors were in danger to a greater or lesser extent, and yet the bond between Dana and Rufus was the one that counted. The sections when Dana found herself stuck in the past were often heart felt and moving, but did feel slightly cliched at times, character development was minimal in most instances; with the few characters who were given stronger back stories still feeling rather stereotypical. Again this gave the effect that the book was aimed at the top end of the 9-12 market rather than the adult readers that it will be given. For the most part This could be a fabulous way to introduce pre and young teens to the themes and issues surrounding the slave trade and the civil rights movement. The setting is far enough removed from the period of the civil war to avoid the discussions about the morality of war itself, allowing the issue of slavery to be given the reader's full focus. The writing contains several instructive passages where prominent individuals are mentioned, as well as providing a well written section set in the contemporary world of 1976 showing that prejudice didn't simply disappear with the abolition of slavery, however I think the repeated discussions of rape gear this towards an older readership which is potentially a shame.
Having criticised the book, and despite a few moments where I seriously considered giving up and reading something a little more adult in style, this did manage to keep me reading until the end. I am sure for young teens this is a fantastic and interesting way to look at American history.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting - Kevin Powers

A collection of poems from Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds. Powers has clearly been deeply effected by his time in the military and by his tour of Iraq during the most recent US involvement in the region. If the effectiveness of a body of poetry can be gauged by how much they make you feel the raw emotion behind them, then these are highly effective. I found these poems to be raw, shocking and highly charged; and was moved to tears while reading several of these. I'll admit that literature of the most recent conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have a certain increased resonance with me generally, and at the moment in particular but even without this I think these are some potentially very important works. I am afraid that when it comes to poetry I am rather old fashioned in my tastes. I am not a massive fan of free verse, preferring a more structured stanzaic form, so I have to say that some of the longer, less structured pieces were a little difficult for me to fully appreciate; however for anyone with less fogyish tastes this has the makings of a five star collection.

“If this poem had wires coming out of it,
 you wouldn’t read it.
 If these words were made of metal
 they could kill us all. But these
 are only words. Go on,
 they are safe to fold and put into your pocket.
 Even better, they are safe
 to be forgotten.”

Monday 23 June 2014

Our Happy Time - Ji-young Gong

What a beautiful book this really is. The premise sounds unremittingly depressing; a wealthy suicidal woman, still struggling to come to terms with the abuse she suffered as a teenager is made to visit a death row inmate convicted of murder and rape. How bleak and awful does that sound eh? However this is not a bleak book, it is delicate, fragile and beautiful. About finding and giving forgiveness, about the idiocy of claiming that death penalty executions are anything other than state sponsored murder, and about how inner peace can be found by accepting the unacceptable and learning to appreciate the little beauties around us. Yujeung is a profoundly damaged young woman, abused by a family member as a teenager and brutally rejected by her mother, she has become hedonistic and an embarrassment to her family. The only member of her family who treats her with respect is her aunt, a nun, who insists that Yujeung accompanies her on her charitable visits to the local state prison. The prisoner they visit, Yunsu is utterly hopeless, angry at the world and resistant to any attempts to change this. As Yujeung and Yunsu open up to one another, each finds a way of reconciling themselves to their own pasts.
The story is told through alternating chapters focusing on the prison visits and Yunsu's childhood. The 'Blue Note' sections that follow the childhood and youth of Yunsu are particularly painful to read. These contrast with the growing warmth that is found in the prison visits, between Yujeung, Yunsu and the unwilling third party in the relationship, the prison guard Officer Yi.
This is a deeply moving book; beautiful spare writing and well crafted characters combine to create a wonderful novel that is disarmingly easy to read despite the subject matter.

Friday 20 June 2014

Harry's Last Stand, The Last Boat Home and Doomed Love.


Three rather different books here. Doomed Love is the first book in the Penguin Great Loves series that I am currently working my way through. Doomed Love is the first four books of Virgil's Aeneid, for those who are not aware the first section focuses on the flight from Troy of Aeneas and his fellow survivors. Having been attacked by the jealous gods they seek refuge in the kingdom of Dido. Dido falls in love with Aeneas and tries to beguile him into remaining with him, but he is compelled to fulfil his destiny of founding the Roman republic and rejects her. This translation is a nuanced and well conceived retelling of a well known story, I would suggest that some familiarity with the story of the fall of Troy would make this an easier read as characters and events are mentioned briefly so a little foreknowledge would go a long way. This is a nice little introduction though and enough to whet your appetite for the Aeneid proper. 

Moving on to Dea Brovig's Last Boat Home, this is a highly atmospheric Norwegian novel. This is a beautiful and very moving book that conjures up the harshness of mid twentieth century rural Norwegian life with a beauty of language and depth of feeling that is quite wonderful. The novel reminded me of Burial Rites in many ways both in the writing style and simply the harsh and restricted life described. The Last Boat is split into two sections one set during the mid 1970's and the other in 2009. It was both fascinating and slightly terrible to read about the restricted, misogynistic and brutal life of a period as recent as the 1970's. With life and family ruled with a rod of iron by the strictures of the church and paternal society. The story focuses on relationships between mothers and their daughters, relationships that are presented as being deeply flawed here. If we were to take our understanding of Scandinavia only from the literature that is translated into English then we would think that the qhole place is populated by delinquent geriatrics and women hating brutes. This book would only add weight to that understanding of the region. Much of the abuse that Else suffers in this novel is reminiscent of storylines from Larsson's Millennium trilogy and from novels like Tom Rob Smith's The Farm. The Scandinavia presented here is brutal, unforgiving and a million miles away from the idea presented of the region being so much a perfect society. 

Finally, Harry's Last Stand. This is an autobiography and political tract from 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith. Harry Smith made the news in 2013 when he declared that he would no longer wear a remembrance day poppy, as he was disgusted with seeing it debased on the lapels of our politicians. In Harry's Last Stand he uses his own experiences of life during the Great Depression to draw parallels between the depravation he experienced and the return to these pre welfare state values that he sees now under austerity. Following the gains by UKIP it is quite magnificent to have the message brought home that not all OAP's are far right loons. I recently listened to an item on BBC radio 4 that discussed how contemporary 18-25 year olds are turning more to the right politically, this is something that scares the bejeezus out of me. Harry Smith tries his hardest to provide a wake-up call about the road austerity measures are taking us down. This reads like Jilted Generation but from the other side of the baby-boom generation, the message is largely the same. 

' We had hoped that our children would keep the torch of civilisation burning while we moved into our senior years, but something happened and their resolve wasn't as strong as ours.'

The basic premise of the book is that the pre war generation fought long and hard in order to build a welfare state that was designed to protect and support the lowest of society. Benefits, a free health service and economic support were supposed to create a better society, and were to replace the Victorian values of reliance on charity, stigmatisation and shame of poor relief. These Victorian values are what Harry see's being returned to the UK. Today more and more working families are reliant of food banks in order to feed their families. Society has returned to a situation where renting is the norm, with the dream of owning your own property fading into the distance for most people. Not only that, but the quality of the property available is being pushed lower and lower as landlords feel able to push the boundaries of legality once again due to the desperation of those needing homes. Once again people on benefits are seen as at fault, the ideas of the 'deserving' and 'un-deserving poor' are once again taking over. This is driven largely by the popular media and it is these myths that Harry Smith is trying to debunk. I hope, I seriously hope that people read this book and take on board the emotional and heartfelt message that this elderly gentleman is trying to get across. To my mind this is a very important message that needs to be heard.

Friday 6 June 2014

The Complete Pin Ups of Gil Elvgren - Taschen

First of all I need to say thank you for my wonderful Other Half for getting me this gorgeous book, so 'Thank You Baby' :)
This is a typically beautiful art book from Taschen which charts the work and life of Gil Elvgren the pop artist and real life MadMen artist. His images were used to advertise everything that made up the mid 20th Century American world, everything from Cola, to war bonds to farming equipment could be found featuring one of his provocative little ladies. Usually these were painted from photographs with a model sometimes recreating the pose again and again in order to capture the correct feel, before essentially being photoshop-ed 1930's style. Everything was made perkier, and cheekier in the final image. What I hadn't noticed before is that often the same image was recreated just in a new outfit so that something very risque with sheer lingerie etc could be toned down and used to sell vacuum cleaners to 1950's housewives. I recognise that these images are probably deeply unPC and that in many ways the naughtier ones are essentially soft porn for the ad industry, but I still really really like the Pin Up image. Like a classic screen siren, they manage to be sexy as hell while usually revealing nothing more than a stretch of bare back, or a naked shoulder. The tops of stockings have never looked so good as they do in these images! I find the gentle titillation and Monroe-esque 'who me?' style of these pictures to be deeply charming and yet highly erotically charged. The fashions shown of the 1930's-1950's are brilliant also, and it is no wonder that the Rockabilly look is so very popular among such a large range of people.
Some of the later works from the 1960's and 70's start to get a bit of a 'Carry On' feel that removes some of the charm of the earlier images, but then both decades seem to have lost a lot of style of the past without gaining any of the equality of the modern world in my opinion anyway, so I was never going to find these later images quite as appealing.
The book contains a great biographical section discussing the life of Elvgren and his influences, which was fascinating to read.
If you like the all American Mid-West girl serving you apple pie with a cheeky pout, this is likely to appeal. Then again it will also appeal to students of advertising history, mid 20th Century popular art, Pin Ups, Burlesque and Vintage style. Pretty darn good! :)

Thursday 5 June 2014

Sally Heathcoate Suffragette - Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Sally Heathcoate follows a Northern maid who is drawn into the Suffragette movement by her employer, and who comes into contact with all the major names of the movement at one point or another. It is a compelling telling of the historic facts surrounding the fight for female rights that took place during the early 20th century, and highlights the factions and rivalries that existed within the movement, in a way that isn't often seen. I would say that using the format of a Graphic Novel and a fictional character to tell this type of story is a stroke of genius and it should bring the historic facts home to a great number of people who would otherwise have been unaware of the facts of this period. The artwork flows nicely, and incorporates pieces of legislation, letters etc into the story to illustrate further details of the political and social situation faced by women at the time. The gradual transformation of Lloyd George into a cat was a great visual representation of the infamous 'Cat and Mouse' Act that saw Suffragettes returned to prison time and time again for example.
I hope to see more titles along similar lines and genuinely think that this could be a useful resource for teaching the history of Women's rights.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Boy That Never Was - Karen Perry

This was an interesting read that kept me keen throughout but that just missed a 4 star score from me. The story opens in Tangier with Harry trying to cook a birthday meal for his wife, getting it ready for when she gets in from work. He is also looking after their young son Dillon. In a shocking move he drugs the young boy, puts him to bed and realises that he has forgotten to collect the birthday gift, so he leaves the child along in the flat and rushes off to collect the gift. While he is gone a natural disaster destroys his home, presumably with Dillon inside.
The scene then shifts forward a number of years to Dublin, where Harry and his wife Robyn are still trying to come to terms with the loss of their son. Harry becomes convinced that he has seen the child in a crowd in the city and begins to behave erratically putting additional strain on the relationship.
The story contains a number of twists one that I had anticipated pretty much from reading the blurb, and one that I didn't see coming; the twisting plot line was well done and I think alternating the chapters between Robyn and Harry worked really well at adding layers to the story.
However I did still have a few issues and it is these that prevented me from ranking the book higher. Firstly I found the continuance of the relationship between the couple to be deeply unlikely. Over the course of the story it becomes clear that Robyn had discovered that her husband was drugging their son, and that she was unhappy enough about this to throw him out. Despite this she apparently took him back, and then continued to stay with him even after she believed that his negligence (and repetition of drugging of the child) led to Dillon dying alone in a horrific way. This seems to be unlikely in the extreme. If nothing else I thought that the relationship between Harry and his In-Laws would have been more strained, as they were portrayed as being much less accepting of the death of their grandchild that Robyn was. The judgements I was making about Robyn as a mother, somewhat coloured my acceptance of the final section of the novel. Which brings me onto my second issue, the ending.
The story comes to a climax with some pretty damn huge revelations, and in the interests of attempting to avoid spoilers as much as possible I will try to avoid discussing these in depth. Huge revelations followed by drastic and dramatic action; and yet the momentous nature of this climax seems to fizzle away to something of a damp squib. Things all work out reasonably well, Robyn returns to somewhere where Harry had been previously happy with her family, and although some issues are mentioned almost in passing; there certainly didn't seem to be as much of a reaction in terms of repercussions as I would have thought. As is the case sometimes with this style of thriller that twists and turns it's way to a BIG climax, it read a little as though the author (authorS in this case) had been told to provide a nice bit of summing up, but to get it done rather sharpish. I thought this let the rest of the story down, and it would have worked better it the climax had come and then left the reader to draw their own conclusions instead of giving this unsatisfying, by-rote ending. A real shame, as this was an enjoyable, if rather implausible story, up until that point. Despite the issues I had with it, I am sure that it will please Sophie Hannah fans and that it would make a great holiday read

Monday 2 June 2014

Strange Bodies - Marcel Theroux

Well I don't know if this was what I was expecting; but whatever, because this was damn good. From reading the back I think I was expecting Zombies.... and because of that I pretty much had to force myself to start this, thinking how much good it would do to my section if I read a few more zombie books, and how much I unexpectedly enjoyed the last zombie book I read, (The Girl With All The Gifts... track this book down and read it 'coz it is GREAT!). What I got though was something quite different, a cloning/bodyswap type story line drawing in Cold War espionage, vicious gangsters and Dr Samuel Johnson. Throw in a touch of uncertainty about the reliability of the narrator, he is a resident at a mental hospital after all, and you have a totally winning mixture.
The writing was proper page turning stuff, that reminded me of James Smythe quite a bit of the time. I really didn't want to put this down. As well as a twisting and very interesting plot there are some simply brilliant characters and scenes; the section where the Russian Mobster who thinks he is/or as we find is more likely actually does have the mind of Dr Johnson escapes and roams around central London looking for familiar landmarks is quite brilliant. In fact most of this comes pretty damn close to brilliance and should be read by fantasy and thriller fans alike.

Thursday 29 May 2014

Don't Point That Thing at Me - Kyril Bonfiglioli

The blurb on the front of this compares the book to a combination of PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming, a comparison that I would say is quite fair; however I would like to throw Tom Sharpe into the mix, simply because the mapcap and cheeky storyline brings to mind some of the escapades of characters like Wilt. Certainly this crime caper about stolen Goyas and murderous policemen owes a lot to Wodehouse, a fact that is made clear my Charlie Mortdecai through his references to Bertie Wooster, and various of the Jeeves novels. I would happily agree that this book is as funny as Wodehouse, but with the added thrills (and tongue in cheek misogyny) of Fleming. The relationship between Charlie and his trusted manservant Jock Strapp seems to owe as much to Clouseau and Cato as it does to Jeeves and Wooster though.
I genuinely enjoyed reading this one, it made a long train journey fly by, and was amusing, disgusting and deeply unpleasant in a very British way all at the same time. Where else could you find a down at heel degenerate minor aristocrat stealing major artworks, drinking fine port with his manservant and getting one over on an incompetent and vindictive member of Special Branch?
I would certainly recommend this to anyone wanting a book full of biting wit, and a good dollop of adventure, and urge you to imagine Roger Moore as Charlie Mortdecai as you read...

Metropole - Ferenc Karinthy

Well then..... I have to say that having finished reading Metropole a few days ago, and having thought long and hard about it, I will still struggle to explain just what happens. Thankfully I think this confusion is the point so I'm not left feeling too stuupid..... after all if Budai, the central character (and the only character to actually have a fixed name), can go through the whole story without having a clue what is happening then so can I. Budai is a, presumably Hungarian, linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki; anyone who has read earlier reviews will know that the combination of Hungary and Finland is going to be a winning one for me. However thanks to a mix up at the airport, maybe he gets on the wrong plane, maybe it gets redirected Budai never knows; when he gets to his destination Hotel Budai realises that it's not Helsinki. In fact he has no idea where he is, or quite how he got there. He tries out his considerable linguistic skills on staff at the hotel, but they are unable or unwilling to understand him, and he can't recognise the language at all. Budai spends weeks exploring this strange unrecognisable city, trying to find someone who can understand him, someone who will help him get home. He wanders the streets, which are always packed full of brusque crowds, trying to find some transport hub that could help him leave; by this point he is keen to get to any location where he can at least recognise the language, but all he finds is a metro that allows him to travel further but offers no chance of leaving the city. With his funds swiftly running out, he forms a connection with the only person in the city who seems willing to even acknowledge him as a fellow human, the lift operator. Unfortunately despite her willingness to connect with Budai, he is unable to even pin down what her name is, ranging variously from Epepe, Dede, Bebpe etc etc etc..... he also encounters a never ending skyscraper that I guess is a stand in for the Tower of Babel. Finally, as his funds run out and his hotel evicts him, Budai finds himself on the street, working as a porter and confronting a breakdown in social order which is all the more terrifying because he is still at a total loss as to what anyone is saying around him. Budai comes up against an incomprehensible and uncaring bureaucracy again and again in a manner that reminded me of both Kafka's The Trial and Claudel's The Investigation. In fact the descriptions of the violent and bustling crowds on the street seemed to link so closely to Claudel, that apart from the issues of language you could almost believe that they share a setting.
I wouldn't advise reading this if you want a story with a strong plot, there is a plot here, but it is at times as confused as Budai himself is, and takes on an almost dreamlike sense sometimes. Nor would I advise reading this if you are likely to become annoyed by Budai's constant self absorbed whining, he is not a terribly sympathetic character and is, in fact something of an idiot. However something about this odd little book kept me reading, at times I wasn't 100% sure what was happening to Budai, but still I was interested enough to keep turning the pages.... I wanted Budai to make it home, I wanted him to figure out where he was, how he got there, why a man had been seen on the Metro with a vintage edition of a Hungarian newspaper. I wanted answers damn it! Did I get them? Not really, the reader is left in the same position as Budai, but still I felt like I had experienced something bizarre, slightly surreal and very interesting indeed.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

The Year of Reading Dangerously - Andy Miller

Another book about reading books here, my second or third this year I think. This one follows Andy Miller, not the author of Pure, the ex-bookseller and half hearted editor, during his 'Year of Betterment'. His challenge is to read fifty of the books that he has had on his to be read heap for quite a while, mainly books that he has convinced himself and others that he has actually read despite this being a lie. Anyone who has worked as a bookseller or librarian will have come up against the dilemma of being asked to discuss books they haven't actually read; often you will have absorbed so much knowledge about these 'classics' that you feel that you have read them even if you've never opened the actual book. Miller's year delves into why he feels as he does about books and reading, and about the way that well loved books can worm their way into your life and into your very soul. I must admit that I never totally trust anyone who says they hate/dislike reading, the only acceptable excuse I can see for this kind of attitude is an actual disability such as profound dyslexia. In that case then I can see that struggling away at something wouldn't be a necessarily enjoyable experience. I am probably being rather unfair here, but anyone else who can't name a single book that they have enjoyed just strikes me as being terrifyingly close minded and in fact rather stupid. It doesn't have to be an epic novel, like Andy Miller, I fully recognise the power and worth of light fluff. There is a place for Dan Brown, even a place for EL James. I might mock the hideous, poorly written nonsense that is Fifty Shades but if someone is reading that then at least they are connecting with the outside world. I loved Miller's take on the role of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code book in his 'Year of Betterment' and it was genuinely heartening to see a bit of mass market fluff like DVC making it's way into his list.
 This book manages to follow Miller's attempts to reignite his love of reading in an entertaining and quirky way, providing a series of reviews for the books as well as a wonderful journey into a lifetime of loving books. There are some quite delightful personal memories of reading and using libraries as a child and well as very funny insights into the life of a London bookseller in the 1990s. For any 'bookish' people out there, this is a lovely read; and I would go so far as making it compulsory reading for booksellers everywhere.

Thursday 22 May 2014

The Awakening of Miss Prim - Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

This is rather lovely. In fact given the rather unsympathetic character that is the titular Miss Prim it is maybe surprising just how lovely this actually is. It seems to be one of the stream of books about book lovers that seem to be coming out with increasing frequency right now, maybe because both writers and publishers think that bibliophiles are the only ones actually purchasing books beyond the Christmas rush these days? Who knows? Whatever may be the case there certainly have been a spate of these books based in and around libraries and bookshops, and so far the ones I have read have been all quite lovely; this is no exception.
Miss Prudencia is an extremely well qualified and rather uptight young woman who answers an advert for a position as a librarian at the private library of a man who is essentially the squire and founder of the community of intellectuals and eccentrics that is San Ireneo. Despite being supremely over qualified for the position she is accepted for the post and finds herself having to adapt to the unconventional, but rather wonderful, family life of her new home. Miss Prim is a rather prickly individual, she has firm views and opinions which she tries her hardest to live up to, and she expects those around her to live up to these standards as well. It is only through accepting that it is acceptable to want and need others that she starts to soften, relaxing her purely rational approach to life and love.
In many ways this novel reads very much like one of the great Victorian novels that Miss Prim so adores. Obviously the plot is rather similar in several respects; Miss Prim is entering the house of landed gentry in one of those awkward 'not quite family, not quite staff' roles such as librarian or governess. Like one of Gaskell's or Bronte's heroines she engages in spiky slightly confrontational conversations with her employer; conversations where the most interesting thing is how long both of them can avoid saying what they really feel or think. Ultimately it is the softening and acceptance that grows within the novel and within Miss Prim that makes this such an endearing read. Gentle, thought provoking and really one of those books that you will think about for a long while.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

I Murdered My Library - Linda Grant

One of the most brutal and distressing essays about the change from printed books to ebooks I've yet to come across; this sums up what it really means to be someone who's books take over their lives. If like me, and like Linda Grant, you can trace important events of your life by the books that you read; and if you are fighting a constant battle to maintain control of your book heaps this is something you need to read. Grant perfectly describes the sense of security that is found in being surrounded by books, and the physical need to aquire and read as many as you can. Certainly this is something I am able to relate to. The whittling down of her library is distressing, and again I could relate to the feelings expressed here on having your library forcably broken up. I genuinely found this distressing to read, and found myself looking around at my overflowing bookshelves and heaps and almost reassuring them that they are safe............
It seems almost ironic that this has been produced as a Kindle Short.

Sunday 18 May 2014

The Murder Book - Jonathan Kellerman Book Tour.....WITH GIVEAWAY!!

I'm relatively new to Jonathan Kellerman, in fact this is only the second or third of his Alex Delaware novels that I have read. Looking through some of the reviews of this 16th instalment in the series, prior to reading it, this may well have been to my advantage. Unlike some of the other reviewers I was able to approach this with a relatively open mind, and I think I probably enjoyed the story more because of this.
The story revolves around a historic unsolved case from the past of detective Milo Sturgis, one that is brought back into the light following the arrival of a 'Murder Book' at the home of Alex Delaware. The book is made up of a series of graphic crime scene photographs. All of historic cases, but arranged to highlight the one unsolved case; that of a young girl brutally tortured, murdered and arranged out in the open above LA. Through this story we finally get a bit of solid back story for Milo, fleshing out his character nicely and providing some insight into events from other novels in the series. In their attempts to discover exactly what had happened Milo and Alex uncover a conspiracy that reaches all the way through the LA political and corporate world. I really enjoyed the complicated storyline, drawing in so many different threads to form a coherent whole. The mystery itself was well written and very interesting.
I did have a few issues though. Having the story unfold through dual narratives was a great idea. Milo and Alex each had something important to offer to the story, and to the reader's appreciation of the finer details. Unfortunately though there were times when following who's narrative I was reading was pretty difficult. I had to go back and double check a fair few times, being charitable I will admit that I was largely reading this quite late at night, but I don't usually struggle to follow narrative threads this much. Another thing that grated a little was the constant references to Milo's sexuality; I think we all get the point that Milo is a homosexual cop working in a prejudiced department, however it did feel as though this fact was brought up in practically every mention of him. I'd hope that the character could be more rounded than this would suggest. Surely there is more to the guy than his sexuality? There are moments where it seems as though we will get more, such as the flashback scenes at the start; but then these come to little.
My final, and by far the biggest issue I have with the novel is how neatly everything falls into place, coupled with the lack of consequences for any of the major characters. To start with we have to initial murder, which has consequences for the people directly involved, but which could apparently be totally removed from the public (and private record). I appreciate that the crux of the story here is the conspiracy, but still it strikes me as a little unlikely that such a total whitewash would have ever been possible. Equally incredible is the fact that the total bloodbath that occurs as a climax to the story is able to be tidied up and dealt with without any involvement of any authorities. We are led to believe that numerous corpses have been quietly buried or left tied up in smouldering buildings, and yet neither Milo nor Alex need to discuss this with any form of police force? This strikes me as maybe stretching reality a little too far.
To sum up this is a very enjoyable thriller with an entertaining crime story and some good character building, just don't expect too much from it because it does require some suspension of disbelief in order to hold together. However I'll certainly be looking out some more Delaware novels in the future.

This is part of the Kellerman 2014 blog tour...
As part of the tour I have a copy of Kellerman's latest book Killer to give away to one lucky person.
To enter all you have to do is leave a comment on my review telling me what your favourite Kellerman book is and why. I'll pick the best reply at random and send your book out to you. :)
I'll pick a winner on 25th May so you have until then to enter....

Thursday 15 May 2014

Be Safe I Love You - Cara Hoffman

With a partner away in Afghan at the moment I have been a little wary about starting this one; I had heard good things but if it was as good as I had been hearing then I wasn't totally sure I would be up for reading it right now. I finally got up the courage to make a start on it and read it in one go more or less.

Be Safe is a unforgiving look at the impact of war shown through the reactions of three generations of interlinked people living in small town America. The majority of the story links around the return home of Sgt Lauren Clay, a gifted singer who enlisted for her tour of Iraq in order to earn enough to give her little brother a better start in life than she has had. Lauren has had a tough life, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that she has been the person responsible for both her little brother and her deeply depressed father since her mother abandoned the family when Lauren was ten. She has spent her whole life being capable and looking after others, so a tour as an NCO with the US Army seems to be a natural progression, especially as the signing bonus and pay will change the life of her whole family. She comes home from her year in Iraq a changed woman; harsh, brittle, unyielding and tattooed. Her friends and family have all managed to move on with their lives in the time she has been away, their lives may not be satisfactory but they have still managed without her. They welcome her home, but are too caught up in their own issues to fully notice or appreciate the changes in her nature.
The story moves forward using all of the different characters and switching between timelines, to build up a full and complete picture of Lauren's life before enlisting, and to show her reactions and steady breakdown once she returns home. Clearly we can see that something deeply traumatic has happened to her during her tour of duty. She is starting to display increasingly worrying signs; home is now nothing but a FOB, she is irritated that her orders are no longer obeyed unquestioningly, and she shows her willingness to use her new skills to inflict pain and bodily harm even on those she cares for. Both her ex-boyfriend and her little brother are subjected to her blows as she attempts to dominate the one and train the other.
Lauren is determined to 'rescue' her little brother, Danny; and plans to do this by heading north into Canada to meet up with her old army buddy and make a new life free and away from the rules and idiocy of society. She is also determined to avoid speaking to the Army Psychologist who is trying to clear up a few irregularities in Sgt Clay's discharge interviews.
The tension builds masterfully, as Hoffman keeps the reader in the dark as to what it is that happened in Iraq, and we are left knowing that we should be worried but unsure as to how far Lauren is willing to go in order to 'live free'.
This is a blunt and raw depiction of how much combat and trauma in the military can devastate the life of those who serve as well as the lives of their loved ones once the come home. Drawing in older characters who have served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War helps keep this from being an attack on any specific conflict, and opens the story up to a more general attack on the dangers of a lack of ongoing care after combat has ceased. I also get the feeling that the length of US tours of duty are being criticised, especially ones that involve RnR periods in theatre. The disassociation from friends and family, and the dislocation from the real non-military world is a major theme in the story.
I would say that this is a powerful novel, however I did feel a little let down by the neatness of the ending. Everything just came together, with all loose ends simply brushed under the carpet. I have to say that even this somewhat trite ending couldn't diminish the impact of the novel too much for me. I don't think it quite had the power of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk or Yellow Birds, but it should go down as one of the important modern novels about the impact of war on the generation that is currently serving.

Blog Tour and Book Giveaway

On the 19th I will be doing my bit for the Jonathan Kellerman Blog Tour 2014, reviewing the 17th Book in the series, The Murder Room. 

As part of the tour I have a copy of Kellerman's latest book Killer to give away to one lucky person.

To enter all you have to do is leave a comment on my review telling me what your favourite Kellerman book is and why. I'll pick the best reply at random and send your book out to you. :)

Only four more days to go......

For the rest of the tour try these....

12th May fromfirstpagetolast “Guilt”
13th May TraceyBookLover “Bones”
14th May Adventures With Words “Mystery”
15th May Compelling Reads “A Cold Heart”
16th May Men Who Stare At Books “Evidence”
17th May Book Addict Shaun “Deception”
18th May BleachHouseLibrary “Therapy”
19th May A Book Worm UK “The Murder Book”
20th May Books, Biscuits and Tea “Victims”
 21st May The Welsh Librarian “Killer”

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Descartes Bones- Russell Shorto

A fascinating look at the enlightenment and it's impact on modern society and belief, using the controversies surrounding the loss and location of Descartes bones to illustrate several different aspects and conflicts that have arisen thanks largely to the initial teachings of the great philosopher himself. The manipulation and deviations from his original thoughts are highlighted here in a clear and detailed manner.

This book takes us through the courts of seventeenth century Sweden and France, via the chaos of the French revolution, and right up to the modern 'War on Terror' with it's fundamentalists on all sides. Shorto seems to be highly sympathetic for those who follow Descartes and allow their reason to continue to admit some doubt about mankind's ability to understand everything about the world and self, and 'fundementalist athists' such as Christopher Hitchens come in for as much criticism as any of the early modern thinkers who spent their time trying to defend and maintain Aristotle's views of the world.
The story of the bones is itself complex and very interesting, and I loved the quietly sarcastic tone adopted by Shorto at the more ridiculous elements of the the tale.

If you are looking for a highly readable and well written look at the central themes of the Enlightenment and the impact these have had on shaping modern society and thought then this is the ideal book to choose. Concise, entertaining and absolutely fascinating.

Thursday 1 May 2014

April 2014

 Has been a slow month here at bookworm HQ. Had a bit of a break from reading at the start of the month, as I had something far far more important to do. I had almost two weeks to spend with my other half before he jetted off on his RAF sponsored holiday. Obviously spending time with him was just a little bit more important than keeping up with my reading, so it kinda fell by the wayside a bit.

At the end of the month I spent a few days helping out at the Cambridge shop; they needed some help moving stuff around and getting everything settled in after expanding their shelving a fair bit. Working here brought home to me just how little my current store really is, even compared to my last shop, we have so little space to play with that it is amazing that we get as much out as we do. A couple of things beyond the range of stock were really nice about working in the larger, more literary minded store that is Cambridge. Firstly the number of gorgeous translated books, whole displays from my old friends Pushkin Press and &Other Stories; they even had a copy of Szerb's The Third Tower on show in the window which made me happy right from the start.
The second thing that I liked about working there for the week, was that for the first few days I was given a totally free rein to tidy and reorganised the history section. This was just like old times, only with a few more books here and there. I absolutely loved getting the section back into shape, a proper return to the good old days. This brought home to me just how well stocked my old history section really was. So many of the books that I came into contact with in Cambridge were ones that I had lovingly re-shelved back in my old store too. A couple of lovely days rearranging this section to my satisfaction countered by a day's penance spent re-shelving the Mind Body and Spirit section. Most of this I don't really have a problem with, the Mythology and Wicca  bit is fine, as is most of the fortune telling part; as a teenager I certainly would have  enjoyed these bits; even now I'm partial to some of this kind of thing from time to time for old time's sake. In fact there was a time when I knew all the best places to pick up a spell book. There was a particularly good place round the corner from Camden Lock, that me and my friends used to visit on the odd Saturday up in London. Lots of the Self-Help books annoy me quite a bit, especially when people come looking at them as gifts for friends. I think I might take offence just a little bit if someone presented me with a book designed to deal with a 'failing' on my part. However the portion of this section that really makes me want to start throwing things about the room is the ridiculous 'I can talk to Angels' largely Doreen Virtue based bit. This combines misery with total bulls**t to create something that winds me up just looking at it. Sorting this section out countered against all the fun I had dealing with the history bit... so nothing in the universe was out of balance there!

So to the reading I've done this month, as usual some really great things alongside a few not so great. I discovered Antal Szerb this month which was quite a find, one of those authors who I've been meaning to read ever since I saw his name alongside that of Stefan Zweig and Hans Fallada. It was well worth the wait to read some of his works. The Third Tower is a lovely little travelogue around Northern Italy while Oliver VII seems to combine Banffy/Wilde and Anthony Hope to make a very funny balanced novel about a dissatisfied central European monarchy. I have a few more of his books to be looking at and hope I'll be able to make a start with at least one of these in May. The other translated works I read this month included The Beggar and the Hare which is gorgeous and which has reaffirmed my desire to read a few Finnish classics, and Big Bad Wolf, the second of the Nele Neuhaus crime novels. This is due to be published as a normal paperback at the end of July and is well worth a look for any fans of Scandi crime. If you haven't read the first one Snow White Must Die then you really do need to go get yourself a copy. I'll be interested to see just how many Grimm references Neuhaus and the translators can make use of with this series.

The book that blew me away this month was Son of the Morning by Mark Alder, if you've looked at my review of this one from earlier in the month, you will see that I got rather over excited about this one. I loved absolutely every moment of reading it. It's complex, dark, bloody and very funny. With some brilliant historical detail and a surprisingly simple basic concept. The past is treated in a wonderfully irreverent way that really got me excited. I spent a wee while talking to the author after I'd read and reviewed this one... and got more and more agitated talking about all the bits and pieces that could be drawn into this fantasy series. I think he may have got a little bit fed up with my geeky enthusiasm but there we go... He needs to get on with writing the next book anyway hehe. Don't let the fantasy label put you off with this one, there are certain fans of Bernard Cornwell's medieval books who could also get a lot from reading SotM.

Other great books this month, (and please don't be annoyed that you are only in my other great books bit) have included Christopher Moore's Shakespearean romp though the Venetian plays that is The Serpent of Venice, James Smythe's The Machine a twist on the Frankenstein story and Nicole Mary Kelby's The Pink Suit a novel about the Kennedy assassination told from a very unusual perspective. These are all well worth checking out if you get the chance and these, along with everything else I have read this month have all been reviewed on here so please have a look.

April has seen me read a mere eleven books.. so I really am slipping. Nine of these I aquired in the first few months of the year one in April itself, and only one came from my to be read heap. I aquired 41 new books of the course of the month so lots more to tempt me throughout May, I'd best just knuckle down to it hadn't I?

Books aquired in April...............

Death a life George Pendle The Hunting Gun Yasushi Inoue
The Corpse-Rat King Lee Battersby Murder Book Jonathan Kellerman
Good Luck of Right Now Matthew Quick Prisoner of Night and Fog Anne Blankman
History of London David Long The Shattered Crown Richard Ford
Last Bus to Coffeeville J Paul Henderson Forbidden Tomb Chris Kuzneski
Before the Fall Juliet West Everything Begins at Midnight Charlene Harris
Metropole Ferenc Karinthy The Pink Suit Nicole Mary Kelby
In The Morning I'll Be Gone Adrian McKinty Ten Cities that Made an Empire Tristram Hunt
Everland Rebecca Hunt Smoke and Mirrors Neil Gaiman
Zodiac Station Tom Harper Strange Girls and Ordinary Women Morgan McCarthy
Compartment No 6 Rosa Liksom If I Knew You Were Going to be this Beautiful Judy Chicurel
The Circle Dave Eggers An Englishman in Madrid Eduardo Mendoza
Plague CC Humphries The Merman Carl-Johan Vallgren
Digging for Richard III Mike Pitts Shadow of Night Deborah Harkness
The Oversight Charlie Fletcher Discovery of witches Deborah Harkness
The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland Big Bad Wolf Nele Neuhaus
Descartes Bones Russel Shorto The Lying Down Room Anna Jaquiery
Easter Parade Richard Yates The Axeman's Jazz Ray Celestin
Above Isla Morley The Poppy  Nicholas J Saunders
The Three Sarah Lotz Our Happy Time Gong Ji-Young
    An Appitite for Violets Martine Bailey