Books

Turbulence by David Szalay

This is essentially a book of short stories with a clever over-arching mechanic that links them. Each chapter tells a different story about someone who is somehow travelling between airports.

So the first chapter starts with a flight from London to Madrid. The next story will take us from Madrid to Dakar. And so we will keep travelling until eventually we arrive back in London.

Each story stands alone, but a character met in the last story will feature in the following one. The stories are very readable little sketches. For the most part nothing too life changing happens, yet the sketch is enough that we get a flavour of the lives of the characters. And just as you’re getting comfortable, the story moves on to the next destination and the next character.

It’s a clever construction and while the book is slight, some of the stories will stay with you.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall was a book that seemed to come up in quite a few of Best of 2018 blogs and articles that I read over Christmas, so I was eager to read this.

It’s an incredibly slim volume, running to around 150 pages, but in packs an absolute punch. I read it across a single day.

Silvie has been dragged along by her father to take part in an archaeological re-enactment in a remote bit of Northumbrian countryside one summer. Her domineering father is a bus-driver by trade, but a man who loves ancient British history to the point that Silvie’s true name is Sulevia, after an ancient British goddess.

Silvie’s mother has also been dragged into spending the time living as an iron-age family might have done, hunting and gathering their own food, living in a period-appropriate hut.

The project is being overseen by a local professor who has also brought a handful of students along for the summer too. But none of them are being forced to endure the full hardship that Silvie’s father is insisting on.

While he’s undoubtedly a fan of iron age history, he is not a nice man. The family have no choice about taking part in the re-enactment.

There’s inherent sexism going on. Silvie’s and her mother are expected to do domestic things while others get to do the more interesting stuff. Her father is slightly distrusting of the students. And more importantly, everything is becoming a little unhinged as the professor and Silvie’s father plot and scheme about some of the less pleasant aspects of iron age society.

Highly recommended.

Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe

When Love Nina came out a few years ago, I thought it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. Nina Stibbe was a young girl from Leicester who’d come down to London to become a nanny. The book is made up of letters sent home describing the goings on the Gloucester Place household. Stibbe was working in the household of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and she had a plethora of interesting guests and goings on, as Stibbe becomes to become more aware of the world around her. “Faux naif” would be the wrong way to describe it, because Stibbe absolutely isn’t “faux.”

The book was something of a sensation, and there was even a pretty decent BBC One version made with Faye Marsay and Helena Bonham Carter. Stibbe’s writing career took off and she’s since had a few books published.

Now I have to make an admission. I can be a little like a butterfly when it comes to books, and even something I’m enjoying can be cast aside because there’s something else even more urgent that I simply have to read this instant.

For some reason, that became the case with Man at the Helm, Stibbe’s follow-up novel. Ahead of an upcoming new novel, I picked this back up recently and started afresh. Indeed, I fairly raced through it.

Although this time the book was fiction, I suspect that there are more than one elements of truth in this book. Lizzie is our narrator, and she lives with her sister and younger brother with their mother in a small Leicester village. Her mother is newly divorced, with their father having recently decided he was gay, and a split subsequently happening. The family has moved into a large house in the village, but they are not immediately accepted. A single mother is not someone to move in polite society.

The two daughters decide that the solution is to find a man to take the helm of the household. They draw up a shortlist of suitable nearby men, and begin their matchmaking process.

The book is shot through with humour, with the girls often landing themselves in trouble. The seventies setting is beautifully drawn and certainly feel accurate and of its time. Stibbe has a wicked ear – capturing the kinds of things that sound frankly ridiculous to 21st century ears. Did she keep a diary in her younger years too?

The girls’ mother is a great character. There are scattered excerpt of “plays” that she keeps writing as an outlet of her frustrations – the plays invariably featuring Roderick and Adele discussing the most menial of things.

Paradise Lodge is a direct sequel to Man at the Helm, although you can happily read one without the other. Lizzie is a little older now, having reached her teenage years. She’s not doing fantastically at school to the dismay of her teachers, but she decides to take a job with her best friend at the local old people’s home, Paradise Lodge.

The home seems to be something of a ramshackle affair, run by a man who’s singularly unsuitable to be running such a place. But this also means that the cast of characters who inhabit the place are enormous fun.

The book is great fun, and the naivety of our heroine is again deliciously served.

Books, Books, Books

Tsundoku Canvas Bags

If you’re a reader of this blog via an RSS reader like Feedly then two things are of note:

  • You are very sensible. RSS readers are still excellent ways to stay on top of numerous websites.
  • You are going to see a deluge of book reviews sometime around about now. Read on to discover why.

The reason for the latter is that I’ve been trying to get myself to read a bit more, and so far this year, I’ve been doing a fairly decent job of it.

Partly that’s a consequence of me actually going to get an eye test towards the latter part of last year, and getting some reading glasses. I really hadn’t clocked how uncomfortable it had become reading. As a result, I wasn’t doing as much as I should.

And partly it’s a consequence of me signing up with Netgalley.

Now to be clear, the last thing on earth I need is more books. I think that if I was bed-bound and had no access to the internet or television, I could happily survive on existing unread books for many months and quite possible a year or two. And that’s based on reading voraciously! But Netgalley is something that I was aware of but hadn’t really followed up on until recently. Essentially it’s a way for publishers to get early feedback on new books and to seed some buzz about new titles in a busy publishing environment.

The deal is that users get free access to new books, assuming the publishers provide it, and in return readers offer unbiased and honest reviews which publishers also ask to be posted in places like Amazon. Netgalley is aimed at reviewers, bloggers, librarians and so on. I’ll let you work out how I fit into the mix.

I will always point out when I’ve been provided with a free copy of a book. If I don’t then you can safely assumed that I bought the title myself. The books you get through Netgalley are invariably digital copies, so I read them on a Kindle. You have to request titles on Netgalley, and publishers make their own decisions about whether or not to offer titles. While I’ve been reasonably successful in being given access to most of the titles I’ve requested, that hasn’t been the case 100% of the time. In any event, I only request access to titles that I’d be likely to read anyway.

The one thing I do try to do, is read the book ahead of the title’s publication date. And that “pressure” has definitely seen me read a lot more as a result. That said, the next book I’ll be reading from Netgalley is actually published today so I might miss my target on at least one title. Often, titles are made available on Netgalley months before their publication. I tend to publish here when I’ve read the book, although my cross-posted reviews on Amazon tend to wait until publication day.

Interestingly, all this reading activity means that I’m reading more than just on my commute. In any event, my commute has me battling between choosing to read or listen to podcasts. So much to do and so little time. I carve out reading time elsewhere.

All titles I read on Netgalley will be reviewed here, and usually on Amazon and Goodreads. Feel free to read or scroll past them as you choose. But rest assured that blog is not becoming a book site. It will as always continue to be somewhere where I write about media, post photos and videos, annotated Radio Times pages and anything else I feel like writing about.

In the recent past, I’ve not been so good about logging everything I’m reading, and I’m trying to do more of this now. So you are likely to see more book reviews appearing. In particular, shortly after I post this, there’s likely to be a fair deluge of reviews of other books I’ve read in the first six weeks or so of this year, beyond those already published. For a variety of reasons they’ve been stacking up in draft form, and I need to get them out there. I’ll let you, dear reader, decide whether that’s a threat or a promise!

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

The Quaker is simply one of the best crime novels I’ve read for a long time. I devoured it.

Unusually the book begins several months after a series of murders has already taken place. Glasgow of the late sixties is in a state of flux. Families are being moved out of the slum tenements that are being pulled down; relocated to the new build flats further outside the centre of the city. And amidst this, three women have been murdered by a man that the press has dubbed The Quaker. There’s no link between the three victims or commonality, beyond them having been dancing at the Barrowlands dance hall.

Despite feverish press coverage, and an artist’s impression being on posters across the city, the investigation has dried up and the police have no new leads. And so, we’re introduced to DI Duncan McCormack, something of an outsider who comes from the Highlands, who is really there to see whether the case should be shut down after months of getting nowhere. It’s a no-win situation. The team on the case know why he’s there.

Elsewhere in Glasgow, a group of career criminals are planning the robbery of one of the city’s auction houses, where some valuable jewels will be going under the hammer. All of this in a city of gangsters that run or take cuts of most of the criminal activities that take place.

All of these stories will somehow collide in what is a masterful piece of fiction.

The sense of place in this book is fantastic: smokey pubs, phone boxes and lots of whisky. There’s sectarianism bobbing around just below the surface, and a smattering of Gaelic. This is seedy Glasgow through a noir lens.

Unusually, we get a first-person perspective from each of the murder victims. Author Liam McIlvanney (son of the famed Scottish crime writer William McIvanney and nephew of the late sports writer Hugh McIlvanney) says that he used this device to try to work around the problem that many crime novels have, of female victims being avenged by male detectives. Of course, all the detectives in Glasgow at the time would have been male, so there’s no getting around that. I think this was a smart decision.

The novel is, of course, based on the true-life murderer Bible John. I say “of course,” but in fact I didn’t really know the details of that case until I read about it afterwards – only vaguely recalling the name. I came into the novel cold, and while those who do know the details of that case will no doubt get a lot from it, it’s absolutely unnecessary to be acquainted with those horrible true events.

The book does veer away from the true-story and reaches a bracing conclusion.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins for my ARC. The Quaker is out now in hardback, with the paperback published on 1 February 2019.

Another Fine Mess by Tim Moore

Tim Moore seems to love setting himself unlikely challenges, often related to cycling. In French Revolutions he rode the route of the Tour de France a few weeks ahead of the race. In Gironomo! he did something similar, with the 1914 Giro d’Italia route, but used a bike from the era to do so.

Most recently in The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, he followed a lesser known cycling route called The Iron Curtain Trail, down the frosty arctic north to the Black Sea. And he chose an East German shopping bike to attempt this task.

In Another Fine Mess he has left his bikes behind, and is instead embarking on a cross-country driving tour of the United States, in a vintage Model T Ford. The somewhat wandering route he is planning to take is planned to take in as many “red states” as he can exploring the people and places that voted for Donald Trump.

In reading this book, it’s not altogether clear that choosing a Model T to drive in has made life any easier than a bike would have done. On the plus side, it’s a conversation opener wherever he goes – especially when they hear a British accent as well. On the other hand, reliability in a near 100 year old car is not what you might get from a Toyota or VW in the early twenty-first century.

But this does mean that he gets to meet an awful lot of tinkerers and home mechanics, which lets us get a little under the skin of why someone like Trump might have ever been elected.

There are common themes: a hatred of government; a love of guns; a slower way of life that harks back to the foundation of modern America.

Alongside this, there’s an exploration of how America became the car country that it did. The mechanisation that Ford introduced starting with the Model T was extraordinary. The changes cars brought to the lives of a hitherto predominantly farming nation are also explored – not least the thousands of miles of road that were laid, including the life-changing introductions of inter-state highways that changed lives again.

The only thing missing really, is an exploration of where cars are going now. Detroit, as we know, is a shell of what it once was, and there is a large turning point in the auto industry ahead of us: self-driving and electric cars. Indeed, quite possibly the very model of private vehicular ownership is going to be challenged.

A really entertaining and insightful exploration of Trump’s heartland.

The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

A twisty psychological thriller than will keep you on your toes until the last page. 

In 1997, ten-year-old Laurel and six-year-old Rosie are playing a game that somehow results in the death of a baby. The country is shocked, and Laurel is old enough to be criminally responsible. She ends up juvenile detention and later prison, while her sister and parents are given new names and relocated. 

Fast forward to the present day, and Rosie is now Hazel. She had a boyfriend with a teenage daughter, and they are spending New Year’s Eve in remote Devon hotel. A little girl has disappeared from the hotel, and her parents and the police are frantically searching for her. Meanwhile, Laurel is pursuing a judicial review that might finally allow her to be released from prison. 

When a writer staying at the hotel realises that Hazel is actually one of the infamous Flower Girls, as Laurel and Rosie were known, he starts a chain of events that will change lives. 

This is one of those twisty tales where you’re never entirely sure where you’re going. The narrative jumps around from Hazel to the suspicious Detective Hillier, and to including Laurel’s defence lawyer and the aunt of the original victim who has made it her life’s work to ensure that Laurel is never released to society. 

There obviously lots of real-life parallels with child killers that The Flower Girls doesn’t avoid. But this is most certainly a different tale, and working out precisely what happened in both 1997 and the present day keeps you guessing all the way through.

Thanks to Netgalley and Raven Books for my ARC. The Flower Girls is published on 24 January in hardback, and is already out on Kindle.

Very Good, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Everyman Wodehouse 1
Table of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Waterstones, Piccadilly

Just over a year ago, I thought that I’d read some Jeeves and Wooster stories set in and around Christmas. Looking around, it seemed that Very Good, Jeeves was my best bet. It included Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit – a Christmas story if ever there was one surely? 

Now for the past few years, I’ve been vaguely collecting the Everyman PG Wodehouse novels. I probably have a dozen or so, with the notion that I’d like to get a complete set at some point. So, it was an Everyman edition I was after. 

The obvious place to look was Amazon. Yes – local bookshops exist, but they’re not necessarily going to have copies of Everyman editions of Wodehouse. Amazon didn’t have any in stock, but claimed it could get one for me.  

In my experience Amazon tends to give longer lead times for titles that it doesn’t have in stock than is strictly necessary – underpromise and overdeliver. Publishers seem to give Amazon preferential treatment, and so I was confident that I should get the book reasonably quickly. 

A few weeks passed, and we were getting close to Christmas. I still didn’t have the title, but I knew how to remedy that. I headed down to Piccadilly where there were two likely shops that would help me. First up was Hatchards. These days it’s owned by Waterstones, but it maintains its own very distinct presence despite there being a very large Waterstones just a 100m further along Piccadilly. 

When the most recent Le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, was published, it was to Hatchards I went in search of a signed copy. I wasn’t alone in that hope, as a gentleman at the counter was asking that very question.  

“No, we don’t have any signed stock at the moment. But we may get some. He does come in here fairly regularly, and he always signs books when he’s in.” 

(In fact, I managed to snag a signed copy from Foyles.) 

Anyway, Hatchards tends to carry a good quantity of the Everyman Wodehouse editions, but when I searched the shelves I found just about every title except Very Good, Jeeves. No matter, I would check the large Waterstones just along the way. It too carries a significant number of Wodehouse novels – I’m sure they sell well to tourists amongst others. However, again I was out of luck. 

I gave up on being able to read the book for Christmas. Certainly, I could easily have obtained a paperback edition. But I wanted a hardback. My search would prevail. 

Christmas 2017 came and went, and on a regular basis, an email would drop into my inbox from Amazon assuring me that they were still trying to get hold of it, but that they hadn’t yet. They pointed me towards the paperback edition, but my order stayed live. They weren’t cancelling it. 

By now, I was just curious to see if they ever came through. 

Then, before Christmas this year, I happened to be close to Hatchards again. So, I popped in on a wet Saturday and wandered to the table and shelves where they keep their Everyman Wodehouses and wouldn’t you know it? There was a stack of copies of Very Good, Jeeves! I bought a copy and promptly cancelled my 13-month-old order with Amazon. 

Over Christmas I finally read it. The first thing to say is that although there are two Christmas-set stories in the book – itself a collection of short stories – they’re only very loosely set at that time of the year.  

But, as always, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The running thread throughout the book is that Bertie is trying to get his own back after Tuppy bet him one evening at the Drones Club, that he couldn’t swing across their pool using rings. However, the final ring had been kept out of reach and Bertie had ruined a very good dinner suit as a result.  

To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m providing that much “plot” information. It’s a Jeeves and Wooster book. You know exactly what you’re getting unless you’ve never read or seen a Jeeves and Wooster book. 

As a side note, having finished the book, I fancied re-watching some of the Fry and Laurie TV series. I happen to own DVDs of the full collection, but I was away from home at the time, with family for Christmas. No matter. Even if it cost me a few quid, I would rent or buy digital copies. 

It seemed unlikely, but I thought I would first check streaming services to which I already subscribed. But it seems that Netflix has not sprung for much 1980s ITV programming. I looked at Amazon, thinking that at least I’d be able to buy digital copies there even if it wasn’t available as a “Prime” series. But it wasn’t. Indeed, although two of the four series of the programme seemed to have once been available, a note informed me that, “Our agreements with the content provider don’t allow purchases of this title at this time.” 

Hmm. 

I checked over on Google Play, but there was no sign of it. Finally, I headed to the service that seems to maintain the fullest library – iTunes. I’d have to watch on my iPad, but not matter. However, even there, I was out of luck. 

Even the ITV Hub, where I knew that I would at least have to put up with dozens of adverts, was unable to help me.  

Incidentally, if you do fancy the DVDs, they’re a snip at just £79.99 on Amazon! I’m sure my set cost less than £20 a few years ago. 

In essence, this is another case of a TV series being essentially unavailable anywhere. I simply don’t understand why it at least isn’t available for sale. I had ready money to buy episodes and the rights owners simply won’t take my cash. 

I’ve moaned before about this situation with regard to even quite recent films. As HMV totters and DVD players begin to become a thing of the past (we are fortunate that BluRay and HD BluRay players are backwards compatable), it seems that we continue to enter a film and TV dark age

For what it’s worth, on my return home I did indeed dust off my old DVDs and rewatched the first series, which happily still stand up. Several stories from Very Good, Jeeves feature in reworked forms in that first series. Look out too for Highclere “Downton Abbey” Castle doubling as Totleigh Towers. 

The series could do with a bit of restoration. I believe the series was shot on 16mm film, but it was then transferred to U-matic tape where the editing probably took place. If the original prints or negatives exist, to properly restore it would perhaps require someone to re-edit the right takes from the filmed elements and painstakingly rebuild it, layering in sounds and colour grading it all. A lot of effort, but it could look fabulous! Sadly, with a lot of ITV/Granada programmes, even if the programmes are restored, they don’t bother releasing them in their new state in the UK. See also, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. 

It would be lovely to think that the reason you can’t buy episodes today is because these restored editions are just around the corner. Sadly, that’s a pipe-dream. 

The Everyman books, however, are marvellous! 

Everyman Wodehouse 2
Bookshelves of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Hatchards, Piccadilly

The Secret Barrister

I think it’s safe to say that The Secret Barrister is easily the scariest book I’ve read in a long time. The one takeaway you instantly get from it is that you never want to get involved in the UK legal system.

Unfortunately, even if you’re a squeaky clean individual who does nothing wrong, there are many ways for you to get caught up in the actions of others, and this book highlights some of the frankly horrific consequences. But what is very clear is that the most iniquitous parts of the system mostly affect the poorest in society.

The anonymous barrister who’s written the book gives us potted histories of why our legal system is what it is, and then gets into the big problems that we have with it.

Some of the major problems are very structural – relying far to heavily on volunteer magistrates for example – but many are caused by a lack of funding. I think I’ve been aware just how much has been stripped out of the Department of Justice, but it impacts less on the middle class because most use things like schools or the NHS. Relatively few of that class fall foul of the law.

An essential book.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Suffolk Winter 2013-20
Suffolk fens near Blythburgh

A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.

I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.

Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?

This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.

What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.

To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.

The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.

But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.

Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.

I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.