A Book Blog.

Month: November 2011

The Devil’s Hunt by P C Doherty

PC Doherty, according to the “blurb” on the book jacket, studied the reign of King Edward II for his doctorate and now he is putting what he learned to good use! The novel is one of an on-going series, set in medieval England, not far removed from Ellis Peters’ better known Cadfael series. Though it concerns a slightly different era; the 14th century rather than the 12th.  As with the Cadfael books, there is a civil war going on in the background, which gives the murders an interesting context.

Doherty’s detective is Sir Hugh Corbett, a minor Norman landowner and the former clerk of the King’s Secret Seal. While he would far rather stay at home to govern his people, watch his small daughter grow up and take care of his pregnant wife, the King commands him to solve some mysterious deaths in the academic world of Oxford University. There is also the matter of the “Bellman”, an anonymous dissident who writes treasonous letters and pins them on the church door. Oxford is a filthy, dangerous place to live in, where the students wear rags and carry daggers and the merchants carry swords. Sir Corbett faces peril on all sides as he clashes with a contingent of Welsh students keen to rake up past grievances, and he is threatened by the Bellman.

PC Doherty’s style is perhaps less rich in period detail than it could be; a cut-price Ellis Peters. Yet he can tell a good story. The one unconvincing note is the seemingly sudden conversion of Corbett’s bodyguard Ranulf from a swaggering bully-boy to a possible candidate for the priesthood. Perhaps the groundwork for this was laid in previous novels, but it seemed to come on rather suddenly and without reason, more than halfway through the story. It takes the attention away from the mail plot, which is perhaps the author’s intention. But it is not very convincing and the novel would have been just as good without the addition of this piece.

“The Devil’s Hunt” is not always as satisfying as some other detective fiction, and Ellis Peters is still the better medieval murder writer, but it is enjoyable. A page turner!

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

This novel has the distinction of being the only book I have been unable to finish for quite some years. I didn’t even get past chapter three, it’s that bad. I’m not a great fan of “chick lit” nor of the sub genres that are meant to be aimed at women. I was attracted to buy this book by it’s enigmatic cover (of a dead crow surrounded by leaves) and by the brief reviews on the back cover. Sadly, I forgot that one should not judge a book by it’s cover! What I found was a dire, dirge like list of grievances. To begin with the first chapter goes on at great length about rain falling on some ordinary English suburb. So, it’s raining. So what else is new? But that chapter goes on and on, detailing the depressing effect of the rain on the streets. For heaven’s sake, this is England! It is always raining!

I am a feminist: let’s get that out of the way straight away. And yes, there is a place for novels about a woman’s place in the world and the difficulties she faces. But this was just lousy with moaning and complaining! Middle class women, driving their children in “Chelsea tractors”, having coffee, moaning to themselves about how their horrible husbands have trapped them. They are obsessed with housework, with making a good impression on the neighbours, about who their neighbours are even. I just could not read on, it was just boring and depressing. I found myself quickly losing interest in even the first character who walks on-stage before her chapter was finished. That is not a good sign; if the reader finds the first characters boring. So, I consigned it to the bin, to be off-loaded on Oxfam, poor souls. Maybe someone else will love this book; someone should even if it is only the author.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

I am a fan of Mr McCall Smith’s books, especially the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Of his other series’, the44 Scotland Street is one I particularly enjoy. The books are about the residents of the house, who live in flats in the building. But this one is, sadly, the least of them. Matthew from the art gallery gets married to Elspeth Harmony, and has an amusing close brush with death while honeymooning in Australia. Little 6-year-old Bertie gains a victory over his overbearing mother when his father unusually stands up to her to allow his son to join the Cub Scouts. Big Lou’s new beau is a rabid Jacobite and leaves her when his beloved Pretender arrives from Belgium. Various interesting and/or amusing things to happen to the other residents, which are usual for this series.

However: I have the feeling that the series is a little tired. No one seems to have moved on at all, despite this being the fifth book. Matthew could be said to have changed in that he is now married, but he doesn’t seem to feature very much in the general story. Also, the artist Angus Lordie’s dog Cyril fathers six puppies, which are left to Angus to look after. He manages to offload all six onto a strange man he meets in the park one evening. The man lifts each puppy up, weighing them speculatively. Angus thinks that this means that the man is being caring about the puppies’ welfare. At several points in the story, characters mention the rumour that puppies are being stolen and sold to restaurants, but nothing is made of it. By the end of the book, we are not told what has actually happened to them. It is as if, having introduced the idea of Cyril having puppies, Mr McCall Smith is no longer interested in them. And the scones make an appearance towards the end, in a throwaway segment that would seem to exist only to allow the cute title.

The problem is, if there is a problem, that the 44 Scotland Street stories are serialised daily in “The Scotsman”. So each chapter is a brief look at one or two characters. That would be no bad thing, except that Mr McCall Smith seems to be loosing the threads. Instead of tying them neatly off at the end of each book, he leaves some of them dangling, which is very unsatisfactory.  Despite this, I did enjoy reading it, though not as much as I enjoyed the other four.

An Alien Light by Nancy Kress

Humans are at war with the Ged, a species which is appalled by their enemy’s aggression. To defeat them, the Ged must learn to understand them. So they go toQom, where a lost Muslim colony from Earth has spread degenerated into the dark ages. TheQomhave split into two groups: the treacherous, artisan Delysian, and the honour bound Spartan-like Jelite; and are constantly at war with each other. The Ged collect six hundred Delysians and Jelites by promising them knowledge of science and weapons. The captive Humans are then placed in a walled city and denied contact with the outside, while the Ged watch the results.  At first, the Humans stick their cultural boundaries and only a few attempt to learn from the Ged. Gradually order breaks down as old resentments rise to the surface and the level of violence threatens to destroy the experiment. A small band of Humans from both sides manage to cut through ingrained prejudices and join together as it becomes obvious that the Ged are not as benevolent as the appear to be.

Science fiction is often accused of not being realistic enough, of being nothing but an escape from reality. Popular films such as “Star Wars” or “Terminator” have done little to refute that opinion, and yet there is more to the genre than spaceship battles and kidnapped princesses. There is a war being waged out in space in “An Alien Light”, but the reader is not bothered with the details of it. The story is concerned with the human “condition”, about why it is that we seem to be determined to find reasons to hate each other. We are forever excluding this group or that one from our definition of what it is to be human. Yet there are a few who try to cross the barriers.

Maggie The Mechanic by Jaime Hernandez

In the 1980’s, the Hernandez brothers produced a comic book series called “Love & Rockets”. Jaime Hernandez’s half was called “Las Locas”, the story of Maggie and Hopey. They were two Mexican-American women, just starting out in life on their own. Hopey was a rebel who aspired to be a famous puink rock guitarist, while Maggie was a more gentle, sweet girl who worked as a mechanic, sometimes. They had lots of adventures, fell in and out of love, lost jobs and found new ones, and never lost sight of who they were. But Maggie and Hopey’s world was not ours. Their was a world in which superheroes, robots, rockets and aliens were commonplace. In which the biggest celebrities were mechanics and detectives, not film stars. Where multi-billionaires bought islands and competed to see who could control the most toys, without being toppled by rebels.

“Los Locas” is still being published with a grown up set of crazy friends. But the early issues are being reprinted in complete stories. This first volume is about how Maggie goes to work with Rand Race, the prosolar mechanic and falls in love with him. She has adventures with dinosaurs, strange native peoples, and almost dies in a revolution. While Hopey stays at home, playing her guitar and waiting for Maggie to come back. It’s a great introduction to their strange world. The artwork is lovely and the stories are great fun.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

If it were not for a forthcoming Open University course on children’s literature, I would probably not read “Swallows and Amazons”. I have glanced it once or twice, out of curiosity: after all, I do love children’s books. But I think it is important to have an interest in sailing to really appreciate the book and the series which came after it.

The story so far: the Walkerchildren; John, Susan, Titty and Roger are on holiday in the Lake District. Being as their father is a sailor, in the Royal Navy and their mother grew up in SydneyHarbourin Australia, they are a boat-mad family. After consultation with their father by post, as he is away in the ChinaSeas, the children are allowed to take their boat Swallow and camp on an island in the lake. Their mother has made their tents and they sail across the lake every morning to buy milk and other essentials from a farm. As if it were not enough of an adventure on it’s own, they think of themselves as the crew of a sailing ship, with the people on the shore being the Natives.

The camp was invaded by pirates: two girls named Nancyand Peggy, who sail a little boat called Amazon. The girls have declared war on their unsympathetic uncle, who really only wants a little space and quiet in which to write a book. After an encounter with the grumpy uncle, henceforth known as Captain Flint, a retired pirate, the Walker children have also declared war on the poor man. They have signed an agreement to form a combined war party, but to be free to attack each other whenever they can. I’ve got as far as the Walkers sailing off, leaving Titty behind as a lookout, while they attempt to capture the Amazon. All the while, knowing that the Amazon pirates are probably embarking on a mission to capture Swallow.

It’s all good fun and I am enjoying the book. However, there are a lot of nautical terms and it seems to be assumed that the reader is as mad about boats as the Walkers. The Arthur Ransome society started up a club to encourage his fans to go off on adventures of their own. I can understand the appeal of it all, but it is not for me.

This book is a welcome change from today’s “issue” books. In Swallows and Amazons, the only issue is over the mystery of why Captain Flint dislikes the children. Thank heavens for books written in 1930!

Presumption by Julia Barrett

Presumption is a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, written by Julia Braun Kessler and Gabrielle Donnelly as ‘Julia Barrett’. At the end of Miss Austen’s 17th century novel, Elizabeth Bennet married Fitzwilliam Darcy. It was obvious to Gentle Reader that married life was not going to be plain sailing for two such strong-willed characters, and so it runs out in this novel. “Presumption” is written in the same formal yet witty style as Miss Austen’s and it is to their credit that Kessler and Donnelly never allow 20th century attitudes or language to spoil the story. By contrast, Georgette Hayer’s enjoyable Regency novels are set in the same period, yet they could not have been written by anyone but a more modern author.

Presumption is a little disappointing however. The authors seem to have been unable to think of a story based around Elizabeth and Darcy. Instead the story revolves around Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana. In “Pride and Prejudice”, Georgiana is narrowly rescued from a disastrous elopement with a distant cousin, Whickham, and now there is more trouble for the Darcy family. Georgiana has vowed never to loose her head and her heart again. But one Captain Haywood begins to woo her with determination, armed with Lord Byron’s verses. Meanwhile, her brother’s architect, Leigh-Cooper, adds to her confusion.

In the original, pride and prejudice was owned in equal amounts by the haphazard Bennets and by the noble families of the county. In this version, the upper class residents presume that, having married beneath him, Darcy is doomed to a life of scandal and despair. Both novels use the uniquely British class system and all of Jane Austen’s sharply portrayed examples are included in the modern version. They haughty lady Catherine de Bourgh, the obsequious Mr Collins and Elizabeth’s hysterical mother are all so well drawn that it is easy to “see” them as they were in the old Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier film. The novel is an enchanting homage to Jane Austen’s wit and skill.

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

I picked up this book thinking, oh, a Richard & Judy recommendation. It’s probably very good, but the fact that they recommended it is enough to turn me off. But I decided that that was a silly prejudice and bought the book anyway. And I’m glad I did!

The premise is, that it is 1819 and the 11-year-old Edgar Allen (Poe) has been taken to London by his foster parents. While his father conducts business, Edgar is sent to a boarding school for boys in Stoke Newington. While there, he makes friends with a boy, Charles Frant,  who closely resembles him in manner and features. This connection becomes a catalyst for a horrible crime and although young Edgar is not a major part of the proceedings, he is there in the background.

The story is told through the eyes of a teacher at the school, Thomas Shield, who is fascinated with Charles’ mother. He becomes part of the horror that strikes at the Frant family and also the unwitting detective who pieces the lies, secrets and betrayal together to solve the crime at the centre. There is lots of period detail, but it never overwhelms the story, which has plenty of twists and turns.  I really could not put this book down and I sat up until 3 o’clock in the morning to finish it. I just could not go to sleep until I had finished it!

Someone should make a movie of it, they really should. Especially with the fascination in the UK for TV series’ set in that time. (And it was funny to think that while Edgar Allen Poe was a schoolboy in England, my little cottage in Wales was being built!)

The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

I’m a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s books; though I love his Botswana novels, I must admit to preferring his novels that are set in Edinburgh, especially his Isabel Dalhousie stories. This one is the fourth in the “Sunday Philosophy Club” series. Isabel Dalhousie is the editor of a small-press applied ethics journal, who solves mysteries on the side.

Isabel is well-off, single and has a calm personality. I thought that she was at least in her mid 50?s, but in this novel, she is said to be in her early 40?s.  She is now trying to cope with having become the mother of a baby son, whose father is Jamie, her niece’s ex-boyfriend.  Isabel wrestled with her growing attraction to Jamie over the past two novels, after Cat dumped him. Jamie nursed an unrequited crush on Cat and hoped that Isabel would help him to return to Cat’s affections. But, although 15 years her junior, he eventually fell in love with Isabel.

Isabel’s life is changing, as she is sacked from her postition as editor of the applied ethics journal. Then Cat takes up with the man who is to replace Isabel, while holding a grudge against her aunt for “snatching” Jamie away. It’s all a dreadful muddle and Isabel is not fond of messy emotions. At the same time, she is puzzled as to how a supposedly dead artist could be still turning out paintings of the Isle of Jura.

Some feel that the Isabel Dalhousie books lack the charm of the Precious Ramotswe novels. To be sure, there is a lot of Isabel’s philisophical musings to wade through, but I find her throught processes to be fascinating. Isabel is calm and cool-headed and would seem, on the face of it, to lack Precious’ passion. But she is no less intrigued by human behaviour and driven to sort out the muddle that other people seem to make of their lives. I find her to be every bit as charming and am hoping that one day. Mr McCall Smith will send Isabel to Botswana!

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