A no brainstrain whodunit for bedtime reading. For the first two-thirds of the book I thought it was going to be one of Tess Gerritsen's better novelsA no brainstrain whodunit for bedtime reading. For the first two-thirds of the book I thought it was going to be one of Tess Gerritsen's better novels, but then she ratcheted up the melodrama, but just missed jumping the shark....more
My eye lit on the title of a book in the library, Vanished and so I looked again, it appealed to my sense of mystery. But then I saw it was II in a seMy eye lit on the title of a book in the library, Vanished and so I looked again, it appealed to my sense of mystery. But then I saw it was II in a series, so I looked at the books on either side, and saw this one. So I took it out and began to read it. It's a sort of mystery-suspense-horror story, with both bodily and spiritual villains.
I very much like the novels of Charles Williams, whose works have been described as spiritual thrillers, and have often wished that someone else would write books in the same genre. I wondered if this might be such a book, but it isn't, not really. I don\t know if Alton Gansky intended to write in that genre, but I suspect not, though at times there are echoes of it. In some ways it is a bit closer to the writings of Frank Peretti, though quite a bit better than those. But those who like Peretti's books might like this one.
It's not a bad book, and an entertaining read, but Williams it isn't.
I saw this book in the library and thought I'd seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20tI saw this book in the library and thought I'd seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20th century, or even the Night train to Lisbon, which seemed to deserve the title In search of lost time almost as much as this one did.
I finished Night train to Lisbon, but I've still got a long way to go with this one. But I've read enough to know that it is a strange book. It seems to break every rule of good writing and style. It has sentences that run over a full page, full of subordinate clauses, and when you get to the end of the sentence you have to go back to the beginning agaain to see what the beginning of the main clause was.
I've been told this is a cultural thing.
French and Spanish writers love long convoluted sentences, while English speakers don't. At least so I've been told. From my time as an editor at Unisa I know that Afrikaans bureaucrats and academics love long and convoluted sentences too -- though sometimes I think it is for the wrong reasons. They think it sounds more "scientific". Too often, however, it's just a cover-up for bullshit. People without academic pretensions seem to be able to write clear and lucid Afrikaans prose, even beautiful prose, without the need to use turgid and turbid circumlocutions. Beyers Naude, for example. It seems strange to me that a language that has such beautiful poetry seems to have so many speakers who feel the need to uglify it with bombastic prose.
I've been told that In search of lost time is written in a "stream of consciousness" style, and that might help to explain the long sentences and convoluted syntax. But I've read other "stream-of-consciousness" novels and I don't recall the main clause being divided by half a page of subordinate clauses like an if-then computer program. Yes, one thought leads to another, but the syntax follows the thought, rather than the thought being divided by the syntax -- at least that is what I recall in The Waves and Ulysses. And this one has more digressions than Tristram Shandy.
Another confusing thing is that one is never sure of the age of the narrator. One moment he is sent to bed because he's too young to sit at the dinner table with the adults, and is scheming to get his mother to come upstairs and kiss him goodnight, the next he is holding adult literary discussions with a sophisticated friend who is excluded from the dinner table because he was rude about the narrator's great aunt. Still, I suppose my stream of consciousness jumps about like that except I'm not asking anyone else to read it, and as the author says, we don't know people, we only know out memories of them. But I think the author of Night train to Lisbon says it better, and in fewer words.
I'm sure I'll have to take it back to the library before I've finished it, and even if I do finish it there are still three more volumes to go. Maybe I'll renew it, maybe I won't.
I was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book.
A high school teI was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book.
A high school teacher of classical languages has a chance encounter with a woman on a bridge in his native town of Bern, Switzerland. She tells him she speaks Portuguese, and the sound of the word, Português grips him, and he walks out of his class, goes to town and in a second-hand bookshop he picks up a Portuguese book called A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. He buys the book, and a Portuguese language course to enable him to read it, and the next morning he gets on a train to Lisbon.
He becomes fascinated by the life of the author of the book, who had died some 30 years before, and goes around meeting people who had known him, friends, relatives, teachers and others. He has Prado's book, and others have more of his writings, and so he speaks from the past, and others have their memories, some of which they share, and so he builds up a picture, and also reflects on his own life, and what it means. So much seems to depend on chance encounters, and so he makes life-changing decisions of the basis of a single word he heard from a stranger on a bridge.
His life becomes a strange mixture of planning to meet people who knew Prado, and also acting on a sudden whim. And so he goes in search of lost time, the lost time of Prado's past, but also the lost time of his own past, and comes to realise that all we have is memory. He takes photos of Lisbon and the people he met there, and also of his home town, Bern.
[He] went through the pictures once more. And then again. The past began to freeze beneath his look. Memory would select, arrange, retouch, lie. The pernicious thing was that the omissions, distortions and lies were later no longer recognized. There was no point of view beyond memory.
So as I read this book, I found myself going on a journey in search of lost time, a journey of memory. How much of what we are lives in the memory of those who have known us? And so much of it is partial, and, more often than not, false.
Prado was a member of the Portuguese resistance against the dictator Salazar, and that brought it home as well. Though that struggle ended twenty years before ours, for a long time they went together, and they were just over the border, in Mocambique and Angola. I did not have to have explained to me what PIDE meant, Salazar's secret police.
The book is a work of fiction, so it is not dealing with real people, but with fictional characters. Someone asked on Twitter the other day what our favourite metabook was, a book that appeared in a work of fiction. I mentioned The Historian, but if I had finished reading this book at the time I might have mentioned it too. The characters are fictional, but then so are the people we have known in real life, because they are all products of our memories, and as we try to recall them, we are in search of lost time.
An old friend died a couple of years ago, Graham Pechey. I had known him at university, 50 years ago, when he was a junior lecturer in English. He was a Marxist atheist, and he introduced me to Bob Dylan. One of the last times I saw him was on 11 November 1965. I had gone to the magistrate's office in the morning to receive an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act. Then Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent, and all the (white) Rhodesian students went to town to celebrate, and when we encountered any of them we sang "God save the Queen" and "Land of hope and glory" just to rile them. On the evening news we heard that Bram Fischer, who had been on the run from the police for months, had been captured.
We sat in Graham Pechey's flat, listening to a speech by British prime minister Harold Wilson, saying that Rhodesian passports would not be recognised, and that Rhodesia would be placed under direct rule of the crown, and that Britain would not abdicate her responsibility for Rhodesia. At the end Graham broke out the booze, and we drank toasts, to Bram Fischer, the Queen, and Harold Wilson.
I reestablished contact with Graham Pechey a coup0le of years ago through Facebook, and he had gone from being a Marxist atheist to a royalist Anglican (though still a socialist, supporting Jeremy Corbyn and demanding the renationalisation of British Rail). I'd love to have been able to sit with him over a few ales and hear the story of his transformation. I wrote to another friend of those days, Saul Bastomsky, who had been my Latin lecturer, like the narrator in Night train to Lisbon. And he recalled Graham Pechey's admiration for W.B. Yeats, and he had teased Graham by referring to Years as a "fascist magician".
So the book sent me on a memory tour, thinking of friends and friendship, and how we know people, or think we do. And even what we think we know changes as it passes into memory. ...more
It took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the sIt took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the story went along, and in the end I enjoyed it very much.
At first the descriptions seemed over the top, like one of those old TV sets where the colour and brightness levels were turned up too high. For example, "She was slim but strong, with long haunches like a well-bred horse, impressive in a solemn kind of way, shy yet provocatively earthy, painfully reticient but when drawn into converstion likely to unfold suddenly, as a quick responsive mountain flower after rain."
It's set in the dying days of the apartheid era (OK, I've given the game away, but it's not really a spoiler, just a puzzle I had, trying to work out if it was set in the 1960s or the late 1980s). The National Liberation Movement sends Cornelius Molapo to his home ground of Tabanyane, to coordinate a local uprising with the national liberation struggle. To account for his disappearance they put around the story that he had been detained by the Security Police, which brings Anthony Ferguson, who works for an international human rights NGO, to South Africa to investigate his disappearance. For Ferguson, a South African expatriate who had been out of the country for 15 years, it was as much of a strange homecoming as going home to Tabanyane was for Cornelius Molapo.
There are many surprising twists in the plot, and eventually Anthony Ferguson comes face to face with Cornelius Molapo, in circumstances he could never have imagined.
Hugh Lewin was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in sabotaging electrical installations in protest against apartheid in the 1960s. He spenHugh Lewin was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in sabotaging electrical installations in protest against apartheid in the 1960s. He spent the seven years in jail in Pretoria, where white "political" prisoners were kept (black ones were imprisoned on Robben Island, near Cape Town). This book is an account of his years in prison. The title of the book, "bandiet", was the name given to convicted prisoners by the prison warders, while the prisoners referred to the warders as "boere".
For the most part the "political" prisoners were isolated from common criminals, and enjoyed fewer privileges. They were allowed one visit and were allowed to send and receive one letter every six months. Other prisoners could have their sentences reduced for good behaviour, but the "politicals" had to serve the full term. Warders who were too friendly with them were punished.
One of the prisoners in this group, Harold Strachan, was released after serving his sentence, and the Rand Daily Mail published his account of prison conditions in 1965, which caused a public uproar, and he was soon back in jail for spilling the beans. But the publicity did lead to some improvements, and some more public scrutiny of the prison system.
Hugh Lewin also exposes the sleazy corruption that flourished in the prison system, protected by laws enforcing secrecy. Sometimes nowadays people talk as if corruption were something new, but the main difference between the 1960s and today is that today we have a constitution that protects freedom of the press, so the corruption is more easily exposed. Back then it flourished under the protection of official secrecy laws, which is why Harold Strachan soon found himself back in jail.
The first edition of Bandiet was published overseas, and banned in South Africa. The revised edition, Bandiet: out of jail, contains the complete original text, but also some additions that could not be published before, as that could have endangered those who were still in jail.
In my blog I have written a series of posts, Tales from Dystopia, anecdotes from the apartheid era in South Africa, reminders of the darkness from which we have come. This book belongs in the same category, telling it like it was. I wouldn't include it in my series, because it is not my story but someone else's, though in some ways the story touches me peripherally. Two of of Hugh Lewin's fellow prisoners were related to friends of mine, and one was a fellow-student at university with me, though I did not know him well.
One of the shortcomings of the book, I thought, was that in the revised edition, when he was able to tell all, he did not include a kind of prospography, with potted biographies of his fellow prisoners, giving something of their background, and what they were convicted of, and what happened to them after they were released. Since they were perforce a very close-knit community (though he does describe some tensions), this would have helped to broaden the story to include others. Perhaps at the time the book was first published, they would have been sufficiently well known from other sources, but few younger readers are likely to know this.
There are also some oblique references to people who were not imprisoned with him, like Looksmart. Now I know, from memory, that Looksmart Solwandle was one of the first to die in detention, but that was 50 years ago, and anyone under 65 might find it difficult to get the reference. He does, however, include quite a lot on the ill-treatment of Bram Fischer, especially in his last illness.
I don't generally like prison books (or films) and so didn't go out of my way to read this one, but I'm glad I did read it. I did read Darkness at noon by Arthur Koestler back in 1967, when I was studying in the UK. Though it was set in the USSR, I kept comparing it to the South African prisons described in the Strachan reports a couple of years earlier. Lewin mentions Darkness at noon, and I think that while I was reading it, Hugh Lewin was in jail in Pretoria, in very similar conditions.
I think I've read this book before, in fact I'm pretty certain I have, as many of the scenes rang bells for me, but the plot did not. Though there wasI think I've read this book before, in fact I'm pretty certain I have, as many of the scenes rang bells for me, but the plot did not. Though there was so much that seemed familiar, i had no idea what was going to happen next, and so it was like reading the book for the first time. I had made no note of having read it before, so could not even tell when I had read it in relation to other books by Phil Rickman.
But whenever I read it before, reading it now makes me think that the book marks a turning point in Rickman's novels, the point at which he switched from writing supernatural thrillers to writing whodunits. Being aware of what he wrote before and what he wrote after this book makes that clear, and as a result the book is rather jumbled and messy.
Merrily Watkins, for those who don't know Rickman's books, has taken over the job of diocesan exorcist for the Church of England Diocese of Hereford, but, since "exorcist" doesn't fit with the modern image the church isd trying to project, she is given the rather twee title of "Deliverance Consultant", and his called in to deal with haunted houses and demonised individuals. She is also the Vicar of Ledawardine, a picturesque tourist village on the Welsh border, and single mother of a teenage daughter making the transition from New Age to atheism.
A parishioner, Gomer Parry, who runs a plant hire business, and features in even more of Rickman's novels than Merrily Watkins, hears that his workshop has burned down, and suspects a business rival Roddy Lodge, whose shoddy workmanship he has criticised. But the discovery of a woman's body excites Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss of the West Mercia police, who thinks he has a serial killer on his hands, an imitator, or even disciple of the infamous Fred West, serial killer of Gloucester.
The whiff of old evil brings Merrily's mentor in deliverance ministry, the Revd Huw Owen, hot-footing it over the border from Wales, and all the while her boyfriend, Lol Robinson, a failed rock-folk musician, is making a reluctant come-back. To add a further complication a new parishioner at Ledwardine, Jenny Box, has seen a vision of an angel over the village, which inspired her to move there from London.
[Potential spoiler ahead]
This tangle of people with different aims and vested interests ends up in a tangled mess with a spectacularly botched funeral and a botched exorcism, with Merrily Watkins and Huw Owen working at cross purposes, in a series of scenes that are rather like a bad dream, where an important event is continually inturrupted or sidetracked by a series of distracting happenings, and each interruption is itself interrupted by something else.
If I did read this book before, it didn't look like a turning point, but reading it this time it now looks like the point at which Merrily Watkins makes the transition to becoming a 21st-century Miss Marple, only a bit younger and less astute.
Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, buA crime novel set in Spain.
Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.
The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.
About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus's novel The outsider.
One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952
It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society's shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, 'Oh, Tangier, those were the days,' because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.
The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.
Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word "parameters" in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.
No, Dostoevsky it isn't, but it's still an above-average whodunit. ...more
When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was ofWhen I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.
Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.
Perhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid's Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.
In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.
The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.
One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid's Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).
So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid's Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women's Day, the 9th of August. They didn't actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.
In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.
There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 -- Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I'm not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his "Clash of Civilizations" theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for. ...more
This story, set in a fictional women's college in Oxford in 1935, in some ways took me back to my student days, and in other ways made me conscious ofThis story, set in a fictional women's college in Oxford in 1935, in some ways took me back to my student days, and in other ways made me conscious of how times have changed. The setting is similar to some of the Inspector Morse stories by Colin Dexter, but the times have changed, manners have changed, and crime novels have changed.
The Inspector Morse stories, like many modern crime novels, are police procedurals rather than whodunits. But in Sayers's pre-war novel, the police don't appear at all; It is all private investigators, and it is a true whodunit in that the reader is offered the same clues as the detective and is challenged to work out who the perpetrator was. In this case I found it pretty easy, and the chief suspect stood out as soon as the clue was revealed.
But the whodunit aspect was only a small part of the interest of the book, for me at least. This was the Oxford of the Inklings, the literary group that included some of my favourite authors, and it is said that Sayers moved on the fringes of that group herself.
I was a student in the UK (in Durham) about 30 years later, and that is now nearly 50 years ago. I don't think it is just because I remember it that the 30 years between 1935 and 1965 seems much greater than that between 1965 and 2015. The academic concerns seem fairly similar, but the formality of manners present an enormous difference, In this book everyone, don and student alike, is referred to as Miss So-and-So. First names are hardly ever mentioned and I found that made it difficult to remember the characters and their roles. Thirty years later, we referred to everyone by nicknames. The Principal of the college was "the Prin", the vice-pricipal was Brang, and one of the tutors was Piglet. So there seemed to be an enormous gulf between the students of the 1930s and those of the 1960s,
Another interesting thing about the book was the issue of feminism. Women's colleges were still something of a novelty at Oxford, it seems, and there was quite a lot of discussion about the role of women, and the tensions between academic and family life. In part, this was dictated by the plot, and the choices faced by the protagonist Harriet Vane, and it turned out to have more to do with the plot in the end, but there was also the 8-year-old girl who wanted to ride and repair motorbikes when she grew up,
So it was an interesting book in many more ways than just a novel of crime detetction.