Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review: On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux

On the Plain of Snakes by Paul TherouxThings have rather got away from me and I’m way behind on my book reviews, but there’s no time like the new year to start playing catch up, so here we go. I’ve read Paul Theroux before, and love his writing, so I was looking forward to reading On The Plain of Snakes. A book like this — a writer I enjoy in terrain with which I am unfamiliar — offered much and, on the whole, delivered. 

I know where Mexico is on the map. I know it has earthquakes and volcanoes. I know it has a drug culture and a fraught relationship with the US. That’s about it. And from this book I learned a whole lot more. 

Theroux begins by following that troublesome border between Mexico and its northern neighbour from the Pacific to the Gulf coast, crisscrossing from one side to the other before taking off and heading much deeper into the country. In terms of what I learned much of it was revelatory and his slightly world-weary eye for detail, especially in a country which comes across as violent and threatening, is second to none. 

If I had a gripe with the book it was that I felt it was a little too introspective and the focus too much on Theroux himself. We didn’t, in my view, need the short story that appeared in the middle, nor was i that interested in his own stint as a writing tutor in Mexico City.

But that's a personal thing. As I say, the writing was haunting, the sense of danger real. Mexico is a fascinating place by this account, but with its death cults, its gangs and its corrupt authorities, not one I’d ever visit. 

Thursday, 12 December 2019

he Daily Telegraph - Dictionary of Tommies' Songs and Slang: Review

 Daily Telegraph - Dictionary of Tommies' Songs and Slang, 1914–1918 by John Trophy and Eric Partridge is a fascinating piece of material. Okay, it wasn’t exactly in the format I was expecting but it was none the worse for that. 

The book, I learn, was first published in 1930. It comes in three sections — an updated introduction, the introduction to the original, and the song themselves (subdivided into categories such as Chants and Songs Rarely, if ever, Sung on the March and including a glossary of soldiers’ slang). 

It’s a browsable book, or it ought to be. The fact that much of it comprises a reproduction of the original makes it hard to navigate around but that isn’t really a problem. It just means you have to scroll through rather than jump about via links or the Go To function. It didn’t matter. It was a book I got lost in, and in the best possible way. 

Both the original and the modern introduction are enlightening, but the real value comes from the words the soldiers themselves use — a combination of knowingness and naivety and a view of life from both male and female perspectives and most definitely one from the trenches rather than the ocean wave. (“Never trust a sailor/an inch above your knee” runs one song.)

I was left both informed and moved by this book, and it’s one I shall definitely keep going back to. 

Friday, 20 September 2019

The Corpse Played Dead by Georgina Clarke: a Book Review

Well, this was different. And I mean that in a good way. 

Georgina Clarke’s The Corpse Played Dead is set in Regency London and begins with notorious prostitute Lizzie Hardwick on the way to the theatre, dressed up in her finery, travelling the streets in company of her employer and to the jeers of the crowd — because Lizzie is a woman who (in a previous book in the series) sent a murderer to the gallows and he died cursing her. What a start! 

This is  the second in the Lizzie Hardwick series and I came to it without having read the first, but didn’t need to know the earlier story to become completely consumed by this one. Lizzie’s previous involvement in crime has brought her to the attention of the Bow Street Runners (the police). When strange and violent happenings begin to occur at the Garrick Theatre she’s persuaded to trade her trade (so to speak) for more honest employment as a seamstress at the theatre in order to find out who is prepared to commit murder to ruin theatre manager and impresario David Garrick — and why. 

This was a terrific story, and Lizzie is a terrific lead. The supporting characters are all terrific, too (I particularly enjoyed the public love-ins and private bitching that characterised both Lizzie’s relationship with her co-workers and those of the actors). And Lizzie’s slow-burn relationship with the handsome, austere and disapproving law officer Will Davenport is one that’s captured me early on and is, I hope, going to keep me engaged for some time yet. 

This is by no means the first book of this period that I’ve read with a theatrical setting, but nevertheless I liked the original take on the more traditional regency novel, with the heroine a straight-up honest and open prostitute rather than a slandered and maligned woman of better quality. It meant that her relationship with Will is problematic and, I think, her feelings about herself, too. 

It was nicely written, beautifully set and a page-turner. What more could you ask? 

Thanks to Netgalley and Canelo for a copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge: Book Review

Sometime — just sometimes — a book comes along that’s as warming as a cup of hot chocolate in a snowstorm, a feelgood read in what seems like an increasingly crazy world. Julie Stock’s latest contemporary romance novel, The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge, is one of those books. 

The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge by [Stock, Julie]So the caveats. It isn’t twisty or shocking or chilling. It’s a romance, which means you’re not going to be surprised by the ending and it doesn’t have plot twists that will catch you in the solar plexus. It isn’t literary (in the sense that you lie awake half the night wondering what it means or if you’ve missed something). But as for what it is…it’s a stonking great cuddle of a book, and I adored it. 

So, the plot. Finn’s bistro in a Devonshire village is in deep trouble and his only option is to sell. When he’s made an offer by Fuller’s, the restaurant chain, on the basis that he remains as chef but a new manager comes in, he has to accept. 

The new manager turns out to be Olivia Fuller, daughter of the chain’s founder, who’s been given Finn’s bistro as a project by her father and is determined to make it a success. Finn, naturally enough, resents the new manager though he finds her attractive, and all sorts of different sparks begin to fly. Just as everything starts to look rosy, the commercial world gets ugly and Finn and Olivia are left with a fight to save their bistro. 

I really loved it. Julie Stock creates believable, engaging characters and places them in realistic and testing situations, so that I found myself rooting for both Finn and Olivia — and, of course, the bistro. Time simply flew by while I was reading it and though it wasn’t a page turner in the traditional sense (I didn’t have to keep reading to know what happened next) I was totally absorbed  from page 1. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Book Review: Without Her by Rosalind Brackenbury

Rosalind Brackenbury’s Without Her is a thoughtful and beautifully-written piece of women’s fiction.  Claudia is living in America where she’s approaching retirement from her job as a lecturer in film studies when she learns that her lifelong friend, Hannah, (the Her of the title) has gone missing. Claudia drops everything to fly to the south of France where Hannah’s husband, Philip, is waiting at the family holiday home for Hannah to turn up. The story is slender in terms of action but that doesn’t matter. It’s many-layered and thought-provoking, picking up on themes of social obligation, of sacrifice, of control over one’s own life. Claudia is the narrator and as she and Philip wait to see whether Hannah (who has something of a history of disappearing and reappearing) will turn up, she reviews their friendship and their fallouts, the things they did together and the things that kept them apart. 

The writing is terrific. I could feel the heat of the summer sun on the back of my neck and smell the lavender; I could sense Claudia’s emotions and feel the tension as concerns for Hannah’s welfare began to rise. The problem for me, though, was that no matter how well the book was written and constructed I didn’t enjoy it as much as it probably merited. 

The reason? I really, really didn’t warm to any of the characters, with the possible exception of Philip. Hannah was positively dislikable, an attention-seeking diva who put her nearest and dearest through stress and misery in the name of her own self-obsession, and all of those people she hurt seemed to adore her all the more because of it. The end of the book raised questions that I should have been more interested in answering than I was, but when it got to the end I’m afraid I really wasn’t invested enough to care what happened to Hannah. 

It’ a shame, because it’s otherwise an excellent book, highly accomplished. But I’m afraid I really, really wasn’t engaged enough to give it five stars. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Dreamscape Media for a copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Book Review: Murder at Whitby Abbey by Cassandra Clark

Dark Age monastic thrillers have been around for a while, ever since the days of Brother Cadfael (and possibly before) and while I wouldn't say I’m an insatiable fan, I dod enjoy them. Cassandra Clark’s Murder at Whitby Abbey, is the first I’ve met featuring a nun, and i have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Sister Hildegard of Meaux is sent with a young monk and two seasoned older monks (veterans of the Crusades and so termed “monks militant”) to Whitby Abbey to bid for a holy relic, a lock of hair purporting to be that of St Hilda of Whitby. When the quartet they discover a monastery at increasingly violent odds with the local townsfolk, three other contenders for the ownership of the relic — and a mysterious death. The death turns out to be murder — but who killed Brother Aelwyn and why? Hildegard and her companions are determined to find out. 

The book was a slow starter and in places I found it confusing, but once the pace picked up it turned into a really gripping read, with moments of heart-stopping fear as Hildegard  faced not only an unknown adversary determined to stop her unmasking the murderer, but also risks to her own virtue in a world where being a nun was no guarantee of respect. 

Set in the late fourteenth century against the background of raucous Christmas revels and rising civil unrest, the book is full of local colour. What made it for me, though, was the characters. Hildegard is no saint, a real woman paying penance for past misdemeanours; devout Luke falls in love with a prostitute; and the two monks militant, Egbert and Gregory, were action heroes of a most unusual type. (I confess: I think I possibly fell a little bit in love with them both.) 

Though it’s the tenth in the series and I haven’t read any others (though I now will) it worked fine for me. Apart from the slow start I thought it was a terrific read and the conclusion was both clever and satisfying. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Severn House for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Book Review: The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

Hmmm. Maybe I should start with a disclaimer. While I quite enjoy Jane Austen I wouldn’t class myself as her biggest fan, though I read a lot around the period. Bearing that in mind I approached Cass Grafton and Ada Bright’s The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen with an open mind.

It’s a time-slip novel, cleverly plotted (perhaps too cleverly as there were a few places where I got confused) and engagingly written. The story is one in which Austen fan Rose, participating in a Jane Austen festival in her home town of Bath, meets a stranger who turns out to be Jane Austen herself, trapped in the present day. Rose’s task is to get Jane back so that the world won’t be deprived of the books she will one day write.

I enjoyed a lot about this book but for me there was fundamental weakness and that was the utter desperation with which Rose felt she had to return Jane to her own time so that she could write all those books. The authors set this up as if they were Saving The World but to me that felt slightly silly as (gulp) I can’t help feeling we would all have survived without Miss Austen’s existing six novels, just as we’ve survived without all the ones she might have written if she hadn’t died young.  

In theory not being a huge fan shouldn’t be a problem as one would expect a book to have a wider appeal than just the die-hard fans. (I’m not a great Charles Dickens fan either, for example, but I’ve recently enjoyed books which feature him as a character). The problem was that I felt rather as if I was on the outside looking in, invited to a party where I know a few people but they all know everyone else better and want to talk in detail about mutual (to them) acquaintances whose names I barely know. I feel a bit churlish saying this but I did feel the significance of some of the plot passed me by. 

A lot of it was very clever, though. I loved the parallel worlds, with and without Jane, in which Rose is confronted with the person she would have been if her interest in the Austen novels and their author hadn’t existed. Her online friendship with American girl Morgan, over in Bath for the festival, would never have existed and in particular I was taken with the dilemma in the romance which was failing for Rose’s in the world with Jane’s writing blossomed in the world without it — a clever touch which genuinely had me struggling to see who it would be resolved. 

I did enjoy this book, as I say, and any Austen fan will surely love it. It’s not the authors’ fault it didn’t quite touch my heart in the way I would have liked. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Canelo for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.