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A couple of books from earlier in the year that I haven’t blogged about so far.

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.

I have read a fair amount of Henry James but not for ages, and I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read The Ambassadors, so can’t really comment on the whether the plot works as described above, but I do know that this was an enjoyable and absorbing novel set in the post-war period, where Bea is commanded by her (rather awful) brother to travel to Paris to bring her nephew home. Of course it doesn’t work out the way she intended, as her nephew has married an older woman, a Romanian refugee. Throughout the novel Bea keeps a lot of information to herself and drip feeds to her brother & sister-in-law (who is in a private clinic) with real and sometimes devastating consequences. Recommended.

Final Girls by Mira Grant

What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

So Dr Jennifer Webb has developed a therapy technique which involves patients entering a virtual reality world where they are subjected to scenarios from horror films or nightmares as a means of working through their issues; in particular it’s used to mend broken relationships where both people go through the same ordeal. The effects carry on into the real world (otherwise what’s the point). Esther Hoffman is a journalist who hates this sort of thing (she has personal experience to back it up) and is intending to write a piece rubbishing the process. She and Jennifer enter the programme, but of course things go pear-shaped as external forces seek to interfere. This is really good stuff, and of course being Mira Grant there are zombies which would personally feature in my nightmares so I felt for Esther. Short enough to read in a single sitting, this is really good fun.

 

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I’ve been reading a lot recently and have fallen behind in writing reviews, so in order to help me catch up here is a round-up of most of the books I read in April & May. Enjoy.

The End Specialist by Drew Margary

The premise is that a cure for ageing has been found. Not a cure for death – you can still succumb to accident, disease or indeed murder, but assuming you retain our health and keep out of harms way you can live infinitely. John Farrell takes the cure when he is in his late twenties and the novel follows him through his extended life, including his time as an end specialist where he assist those who have taken the cure but basically had enough to take their own lives. There’s a lot more to this than just John’s story of course; there’s background on how the cure came to be and a pretty good summation of the likely impact on society – how will resources be allocated if people are still being born but very few are dying, as well as who actually gets access to the cure in the first place. There are of course various fanatics with extremist views and John has to face up to his life in the end. I enjoyed reading this and would recommend if you are in a dystopian frame of mind.

Adamtine by Hannah Berry

An unsettling horror story in graphic novel form, about a man who was involved in a range of disappearances by delivering notes to the victims, but who has always denied any further responsibility for what may have happened to them. Acquitted of being the killer, we find that he himself ends up being murdered and the book gives us hints about how this might have happened; the author has talked about wanting to show us how the consequences of minor actions can lead to major outcomes, in this case the death of a man. The book is dark in both tone and artwork, and the action takes place on a virtually empty last train of the night. It is creepy, unsettling and needs to be read more than once to really work out what’s going on; no answers are presented to the reader. it stuck with me for some time after I read it and I haven’t picked it up again so far, but I know I will.

Six Stories & Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

I picked up Hydra on the recommendation of I think another blogger, can’t remember, and enjoyed it too much that I immediately bought Six Stories, part of the same series, though they can easily be read as stand alone novels. Scott King is a podcaster focussing on true crime, where there is some doubt about the solution or where an answer has simply never been found. Both books have the same structure, where King allows those involved to talk about the case from their point of view. In Hydra this involves a young woman who massacred her family, in Six Stories it’s about the disappearance of a boy whose body is found some years later. I found both books to be really enjoyable; I listen to quite a few podcasts and the structure was so well presented that you could easily forget you were not reading a transcript of the real deal. I hope that he produces more in this vein.

The Elder Ice by David Hambling

I feel very guilty that I have had this book for ages and only just got around to reading it. The Elder Ice is set in 1920s London where our protagonist, an ex-boxer called Harry Stubbs, is tasked with investigating the late Ernest Shackleton and the treasure he may or may not have brought back from Antarctica. Enter the Cthulhu mythos. I have been a fan of Lovecraft since I was a youngster; I think I read the Shadow over Innsmouth when I was still in primary school (I was 11 and still have the paperback with its lurid cover) so when I realised that not only were we heading down that road but that we would be skirting around my absolute favourite stories, At the Mountains of Madness, I was absolutely sold. I really, really loved this book. Harry is a remarkable character and I thought he was fabulous and a strong central pinning for the story. Very nicely done, and I look forward to reading future volumes.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

This isn’t for the faint-hearted and has a whole list of triggers as long as my arm. Female children are no longer naturally born, so they are genetically engineered and brought up in the School until they are sixteen and ready to be chosen by one of the elite young men of a similar age for whom they have been bred. The girls compete against each other in terms of looks and accomplishments and attractiveness, which  leads to all sorts of unfortunate behaviours and issues around body image. Frieda is our way into this world, and she has significant problems, especially with sleep, but has a close friend, Isabel, who seems to have a particular status which we don’t find out the details of until towards the end of the story. It’s teenage girls so there are petty squabbles and cliques all ramped up by the unnatural situation (to us) that they find themselves in, but it’s all that they know. It is bleak and in some places distressing and an extreme version of the pressures that girls and young women find themselves under at present. I’m an oldster, but I recognised a lot of the feelings, and was interested to see that the author said that when she looked back at her own teenage diaries she wasn’t sure that she had made the book sufficiently bleak. Stayed with me for a while. Deservedly a prizewinner.

 

 

Finally getting round to putting my thoughts together on this second phase of reading Muriel Spark to mark the centenary of her birth. My reading for this phase covers her novels from the 1960s and ran from 1 March to 30 April, though my final read did slip into May and there is in addition a missing title.

During March I spent a long weekend in Edinburgh and visited the Muriel Spark exhibition in the National Library of Scotland which was absolutely fascinating and sadly not allowed to be photographed. If I didn’t already love Dame Muriel the fact that she seems to have retained every single piece of paper that came into her life would have endeared her to me. My favourite was the handwritten letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis seeking the rights to Dame Muriel’s memoir; she didn’t get them. I will warn you now that I’ll be referring to y trip more than once 🙂

But, to the books …..

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, I read the novel for the first time in 1981 and this is my fourth time of reading.

Dougal Douglas arrives in Peckham and insinuates himself into the lives of the workers in a local firm, and the wider community, leaving a legacy of “fraud, blackmail, violence and murder”

I go up and down with this one to be honest, depending on my mood. Sometimes I see Dougal as a trickster figure gleefully stirring things up and drawing out of the people around him what they are already capable of; on other occasions I consider him a monster, destroying lives and causing mayhem with no thought of the consequences.

This time round he was somewhere in between.

The Bachelors (1960)

My edition is a Penguin from 1985, first read in 1992 and this is my third go-round.

Bachelors of various types. Spiritualism. Mediums. Forgery. Unsavoury elements. All found in the environs of Chelsea, Hampstead and Kensington. Gossip and waspishness abound.

I appreciated the novel more on this reading that I have ever done so before. I read it on the train on my way back from Edinburgh and it was a very pleasant experience, considering how unpleasant many of the characters are, especially Patrick Seton who is a downright nasty piece of work. I have to say it’s one of my least favourite of the novels, but it’s still very good.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

My first and still my favourite of the novels, this was on the syllabus for my Higher English at school and I fell in love immediately. My current edition is a 1980 Penguin edition with the STV serialisation cover showing the wonderful Geraldine McEwan. A classmate of mine was an extra in several of the schoolroom scenes, and having seen a clip in the NLS exhibition I’ve nabbed the series on DVD.

I have read this on at least seven occasions and it is one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve covered it on the blog before, and you can find more of my thoughts here.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

A Penguin 1982 edition where the pages have now parted from the cover, I first read this in 1984 and this is my third time.

The story is set amongst a group of young women in London in 1945 after the war has all but ended, all of whom live in the May of Teck Club, an institution founded in the days of Edward VII for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

I still find this a very enjoyable novel, finding it both sharply drawn and terribly sad on this reading. I have written about the novel before and you can find my thoughts here.

The Public Image (1968)

This a 1982 Penguin edition, which I first read in 1983; this is my third reading.

Annabel is an actress living in Rome, where her husband Frederick takes his own life in a way designed to cause maximum damage to his wife’s public image. How will she deal with this?

I loved this book the first couple of times but 35 years older and in the light of #MeToo I can’t help but focus on how monstrous all of the male characters are to Annabel. t has dated quite a bit but if you can imagine it as a film in the style of Antonioni or one of his peers then it’s an interesting slice of 1960s hedonism.

And then there’s the one that’s missing….

The Mandlebaum Gate is the only book by Dame Muriel that I have started and been unable to finish; I wrote a short post about it here. But I am determined to give it another shot in the hopes that I just wasn’t in the right mood at the time, and will read it alongside the collected short stories in Phase 3.

 

 

In a similar vein to my non-fiction reads (see here), I thought I would provide a very quick round up of short fiction I read in the first quarter of 2018.

Jeff VanderMeer shorts

The Strange Bird and This World is Full of Monsters both take place in the same world as his last novel Borne, which I read last year and totally adored (you can read what I said about it here). I enjoyed both of these but found The Strange Bird much more accessible in terms of structure and narrative than This World, though both are beautifully written and very much worth reading.

The Murders of Molly Southborne

Oh this is a corker. Every time Molly bleeds another Molly is born and has to be disposed of; so she spends her life killing herself over and over. I found it totally compelling, as Molly explains what she has to do to survive, how this all happened and what her future might (will?) be. Just so so good, couldn’t stop thinking about it and will read it agin in the not too distant future.

A Long Spoon

It’s amazing the things you forget….  Apparently I bought this Kindle short back in 2014 and came across it when I was sorting out files on my iPad, and because I loved the cover I thought I would give it a go. Johannes Cabal is a necromancer and is heading off to a little-known part of Hell because someone is trying to kill him. He needs a guide though, and summons a demon called Zeranyia, one of my favourite characters of all time; she’s a hoot. This was a fun read, and I was pleased to discover (that memory again) that we have a copy of the first novel in the Cabal sequence.

Have you read any short works recently?

 

I don’t find it easy to review non-fiction books so thought that I would provide a quarterly (or thereabouts) round-up so that I don’t miss any of my 2018 reading. This post covers the first quarter of this year.

  • The Midnight Assassin by Skip Holdsworth – “Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer”, this covers the crimes of the person who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator in Austin, Texas during the period 1884-5. Never caught, there was serious consideration of this man (probably) as Jack the Ripper a few years later. So interesting I’ve gone off and purchased the novel by Steven Taylor which recreates the murders and the various trials.
  • The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – a history of the Detection Club as founded by Dorothy L Sayers and others, counting most of the greats (including Agatha Christie) in its membership. A breezy history of the club and the development of the classic murder mystery, this led me down several rabbit holes including rewatching some old TV series and finding successor authors picking up unfinished stories before creating their own. Dangerous for its potential impact on book spend.
  • I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – “A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.” So well written, totally fascinating and really sad whenever you come across sections where it’s made clear that they were reconstructed from the author’s notes. I read this in tow massive chunks one weekend. Gripping.
  • Bright Young People by DJ Taylor – this is one of the rabbit holes I mentioned above. We watched an adaptation of my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Murder Must Advertise) which has a number of characters described as bright young things, which led me to this book which gives a history of the Bright Young People, who they were, what they got up to and how they, mostly, declined. Includes various Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh for a start. I’m not sure it delivers much in terms of analysis but there is plenty of society gossip. I can’t resist tales of aristocratic ladies!

I seem to be very attracted to true crime at the moment – watch this space 😀

 

513UDubStkLWhat’s it all about?

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered.

But help is at hand in the form of her neighbour, the maths teacher Ishigawa, who has become obsessed with her. But the police get involved along with the physics professor Yukawa, who acts as an informal consultant to the police, and having studied alongside Ishigawa recognises his genius. So these two great minds battle it out and we are invited to try to work out the solution to how, exactly, Ishigawa covered up the crime.

Why did I want to read it?

I’ve recently become very interested in Japanese crime fiction (see here and here for thoughts on other books, and this was recommended to me as a particularly interesting entry in a long list of similar books. The fact that it’s quite clear from the beginning who the killer actually is adds an extra dimension.

What did I think about it?

I enjoyed this very much as a traditional crime novel with a solution that I absolutely did not see coming, and understand why it was so popular in Japan.  The relationship between the two leading male characters is particularly enjoyable, though the “devotion” of Ishigawa to his neighbour is more than a little unsettling, and we are led to believe that it is heading in a particular direction which then turns into something else. I felt that his desire to help Yasuko only made things worse for her in the long run, but of course it would be a ver different story if he hadn’t stepped in.

The solution is ingenious if troubling, and I wonder if I’m alone in feeling that the final action taken by Yukawa represented a real breach of trust. I felt really unsettled by that infliction of emotional pain though it was clearly intense to serve justice.

I will be looking out for more of this author’s work.

25541152What’s it all about?

A bestselling and internationally acclaimed masterpiece of the locked-room mystery genre

Why did I want to read it?

I have read some Japanese crime fiction before (this, for example) but came to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders via my recent intense interest in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

Although the some would say that the GACF died out in the UK (not me, it seems alive and well) the traditional forms were preserved in Japan in the form of Honkaku mysteries, where old-fashioned plot devices etc. are used in a modern setting.

Specifically, these works are determined to play fair with the reader, giving all of the information necessary to solve the crime at the centre of each story.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thoughts?

It is a very strange but utterly convincing book. I actually went off and checked whether these murders were real because the first section sets out the details alongside some new evidence in a way which made me convinced that this was based on a real-life case (which it isn’t).

So we have the back story, and when new evidence comes to light our protagonists head off to investigate this series of grisly murders – one traditional locked room mystery, one bloody home invasion and then the murder and mutilation of six young women who will be found at various sites around Japan which seem to have some form of mystical solution. All of the victims are related, and all but one is a young woman.

At a couple of points in the book the author speaks directly to the reader, stating that all of the information that you would need to solve this mystery has been provided, so basically off you go and come up with a solution before you reach the conclusion.

I won’t go into the plot more than this, because half the fun is in trying to work out what on earth is going on. The answer to how the murders were carried out is ingenious but I think you would need to be Japanese to pick up on one of the clues presented.

I enjoyed reading this very much, and it is clearly an important work in the genre. It has reinforced my interest in Japanese crime fiction and a few more have found their way onto my TBR pile.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Dame Muriel Spark has long been one of my favourite authors and I’m taking part in the commemoration of her centenary this year by reading All of the Things. If you’ve been here long enough you may remember that I tried this before and failed miserably around book 8 out of the 22 novels that she wrote. But I’m determined to finish the project this time around.

Phase 1 took place between 1 January and 28 February and covered the novels she published in the 1950s…..

The Comforters (1957)

My edition is the 1982 Penguin, and I first read this novel in 1984; this is the third time of reading.

Caroline Rose is afflicted by what she calls the Typing Ghost, hearing her thoughts being spoken back to her as if she was the main character in a novel. Is that the case or is she going mad?

I love the waspishness of this novel which basically sets the tone for all of Muriel Sparks books – there is a lot of humour and quite a bit of philosophy, especially here where the very nature of existence is in question. Interestingly, Muriel Spark experienced hallucinations herself at one point due to medication she was taking at the time, though hers manifested themselves as jumbled words on the page which, as she pointed out, would not translate well to a novel. Such a strong and refreshing first book.

Robinson (1958)

My edition is the 2003 New Directions, bought specifically to fill the gaps in my collection when I tried to read all the novels back in 2006; this is the second time of reading.

January Marlowe is writing a journal covering the events of the few months she finds herself stranded on the island of Robinson, owned by a man also known as Robinson. She is there with two other survivors of a plane crash; no-one knows they are alive and they are all awaiting the planned arrival of a ship to tell the world they are OK and help them get back to their lives. But then there appears to have been a murder, and tensions rise as they become suspicious of each other.

I vaguely remembered the plot of this one but for some reason it really resonated with me more the second time around. Even though this is a first person narrative which often screams “unreliable narrator” I really trusted January’s voice. All of the men were downright unpleasant in one way or another so I was rooting for January all the way through. The plot is nice and twisty, which I loved. Of the three, this is the one I can see myself reading again soonest.

Memento Mori (1959)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, probably one of the first of her books I bought after leaving school (which is where I was introduced to Muriel Spark through the medium of a certain Jean Brodie).

This is the fourth time I have read Memento Mori.

The novel concerns a group of elderly people, (almost) all known to each other and all experiencing the infirmities and complications of their advanced ages. A number of them receive mysterious phone calls where the caller simply states “Remember you must die.” Is this a hoax being carried out by someone they know? Or something more than that?

I first read this when I was 19 and I’m pretty sure that I was deeply impatient with the old folk, with their aches and pains and worries and constant tinkering with their wills and their habit of harking back to things long past. I’m 56 now and I find myself increasingly sympathetic to their plight and anxious for their continued well-being. And in Mrs Pettigrew we have one of Dame Muriel’s wonderfully monstrous women. Still a superb novel.

********************************************************

So, very pleased to have successfully reached the end of Phase One; looking forward to starting the next group covering her novels from the 1960s. Some of my absolute favourites are in there!

 

 

51mOgPy-TCLWhat’s it all about?

In Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, four old university friends reunite for a hiking trip in the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle. No longer young men, they have little left in common and tensions rise as they struggle to connect. Frustrated and tired they take a shortcut that turns their hike into a nightmare that could cost them their lives.

Why did I want to read it?

Amusingly, the Kindle edition of this book has as part of its title “Now A Major Film, The Most Thrilling Chiller You’ll Read This Year”, and to be fair that’s partly why I bought it. It also fitted in with some of my autumn reading which involved a mixture of Scandinavia, the supernatural, death and gore and appalling weather. You will see more of this as I catch up with my humongous backlog of posts.

What did I think of it?

I have several Adam Nevill books but haven’t got around to reading any of them until now, and as I said above this was triggered by the release of the film which, by the way, I haven’t seen.

So, these four guys are doing the male bonding thing and it isn’t going well so Hutch, the one who is leading their expedition, suggests a shortcut; this is a horror novel so of course this is not going to end well. They come across evidence of some very strange practices and there is definitely Something Out There and it is not friendly.  And when you think you know where this might be going it takes a weird turn.

And then it ends.

It’s a very blokey novel and I definitely felt that I was not the target audience, which is fine, but I was mildly annoyed that all of the women referenced in the story were so, well, unpleasant. The Big Nasty was creepy and horrible and well done, and the story definitely unsettling. Although it’s not written in the first person it becomes clear very early on that Luke is the guy we are supposed to be rooting for as we see everything from his perspective, but he really is a bit of a jerk. And the book ends just at the point where it got really interesting. How is Luke going to explain all of this? Sadly, we will never know.

So it’s fine as a novel. Will be fascinated to see how it works as a film, though not fascinated enough to spend any money seeing it. I will read the other works by Nevill that I already have, but won’t be rushing out to buy any more for now.

 

 

 

 

 

28225843What’s it all about?

A novel that is simultaneously harrowing, dark, dangerous, funny and uplifting from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy

“Am I a person?” Borne asks Rachel, in extremis.
“Yes, you are a person,” Rachel tells him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

Why did I want to read it?

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s Southern Reach trilogy and have been very keen to read more of is work. I thought I’d start here.

What did I think of it?

I loved this book so much, I basically devoured it. It’s everything the blurb says it is, and much more too.

Our protagonist is Rachel, a scavenger in the remnants of a city ravaged by disaster (though we’re not entirely clear what that disaster may have been). She lives in a block of flats which is falling apart with her partner Wick, who knows stuff about biotech and deals in the things that Rachel finds for him.

When out scavenging she comes across Borne (as she names it), a form of biotech which she becomes attached to (not literally) and begins to nurture. It becomes clear that Borne is sentient and develops as a human child would, though with the ability  to change shape (the cover above is I guess a representation of it) and to learn about things by, well, absorbing them (ie eating them).

There is a mystery at the heart of Rachel’s story; she has memories of her past away from the city but her family is gone. There are rivalries between the various communities as they each seek dominance, and there is of course the Company that has created all of the biotech which is swarming around, including an enormous flying bear which I found hard to visualise at first but came to accept quite quickly.

Although there is a conclusion to the story (and a satisfying one at that) the plot is any many ways not the core of why this book is so good. It’s all about the characters and their relationships. This is especially the case with Rachel and Borne; the latter has a very distinctive voice which develops as he grows from toddler to teenager to young adult and learns to navigate the world.

Like I said, I loved this and can’t recommend it highly enough. Go read!

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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