Guy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic dutyGuy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic duty by joining the army. Because of his age, however, no one will have him. Eventually, though an acquaintance of his father's, he joins the regiment of Halberdiers, and undergoes boring officer training. The war progresses, but nobody seems to want the Halberdiers either.
After training, they have a new commanding officer, who wants them assigned to Hazardous Offensive Operations, for which more training is required. Whenever he seems about to go into active service, Guy Crouchback is sidelined, by accident, injury or illness, or the need for further training for some new task.
This book was originally a trilogy of three novels, and was rewritten into one in the 1960s. While reading it, I wondered how Britain ever managed to win the war, as everything seemed to be stifled by red tape. At one level the novel is satirical, making fun of the military bureaucracy. But there is also something authentic behind the satire; this is indeed how many soldiers probably spent the war, with action brief and inconclusive, and much of the time just hanging around waiting for someone, somewhere, to give an order.
So the book is also something of a historical record. Many soldiers left diaries and memoirs, but what they told and what they chose to leave untold varied a great deal. Many may have recorded battles and action, but the logistics of preparing for the action gets omitted. Waugh seems to tell more of the story than most. This is what it was actually like, not in surreal fantasies like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or in the story of planning and carrying out of military operations, but in the experience of one soldier, and a few of the people he encountered, buth military and civilian.
I'm not an expert on military history, but some parts that touch on things that I have read about in history books, such as conditions in war-time Yugoslavia, seemed pretty authentic to me.
Guy Crouchback is a Roman Catholic, and so we are given a glimpse of the lost world of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, to which Evelyn Waugh was a well-known literary convert.
It reminded me in some ways of Waugh's contemporary, Graham Greene, also a converet to the Roman Catholic Church, whose The power and the glory reflects on the challenge of being a saint. Guy Crouchback is nothing like the whisky priest in The power and the glory, in either his upbringing, his circumstances or his character. But he faces similar problems of conscience and ethical dilemmas, in which attempts to help others sometimes turn out well, and sometimes disastrously for all concerned.
As it is a concatenated trilogy, it's a long read, and when I finally reached the end, the overwhelming impression was of the futility of war. ...more
When I was 11 years old I went to high school and started Algebra. A couple of weeks after the beginning of the school term I was sick, and missed aboWhen I was 11 years old I went to high school and started Algebra. A couple of weeks after the beginning of the school term I was sick, and missed about 3 days' classes, and must have missed something vital, because I never managed to catch up. In maths exams I did well in geometry, was mediocre in arthmetic and trigonometry (mainly because of careless mistakes) but very poor in algebra. So when I saw this book in the library, I thought it might be an opportunity to see what I had missed.
I found the first few chapters interesting and informative. I was amazed at how what I had learned about vulgar fractions at school came back to me, and made more sense than it ever had at school. Even the beginning of algebra made much more sense. Perhaps it was because more than 30 years of using computers had taught me the uses of variables, though with computers one usually assigns values to variables rather than trying to work out the value of variables in equations. Things I had learnt at school as arbitrary rules suddenly began to make sense. Perhaps they made too much sense, because I found sometimes I could not follow the reasoning in the book, but following my own reasoning was able to solve simple (very simple) equations in my head.
I began to think that algebra could make sense after all.
So I read on, and then came a section where there were a lot of arbitrary unexplained rules that would need to be memorised if I were to make any more progress. Nevertheless, I kept the book in the bathroom and read snatches of it in the bath. Some bits made sense, others didn't.
I don't think I'll finish the book because the time is drawing near when I'll have to take it back to the library. That's OK. I don't think I've used the little algebra I learnt since leaving school over 50 years ago, so I doubt that I'll have much use for it in the short time left to me. But I'd still like to read a book in which the reasons behind the rules are explained. For a few chapters I thought that this would turn out to be one of those books, but it wasn't. ...more
I had mixed feelings about this book, which is about a Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary in an English monastery, but is eventually brought to triI had mixed feelings about this book, which is about a Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary in an English monastery, but is eventually brought to trial.
Agnes Embleton, who is dying of motor neurone disease, writes down the story of her part in the French resistance to Nazi occupation, smuggling Jewish children out of France, using a monastery of the same order as that in which the war criminal has sought sanctuary. She writes the story for her granddaughter Lucy, in haste, knowing that she will soon lose the ability to write.
The snippets from reviews quoted in the blurb speak of the "complex" plot, but I was left wondering whether it was complex or just confusing. The behaviour of some of the characters is inexplicable, even when it is explained. It was an enjoyable read, but some aspects were not quite satisfactory. I wasn't sure whether to give it 3 stars or 4; probably three and a half stars, better than six out of 10, but not really deserving 8 out of 10.
Though Agnes is dying, she is not yet dead, yet all those involved in the war crimes trial, the prosecution and the defence, the witnesses and the judge, believe that she died in Auchwitz. Lucy Embleton, sitting in the court observing the trial, knows but will not say that Agnes is still alive, though dying. It seems that this is something only to be revealed after the trial, but why this should be so is never made clear.
Father Anselm, one of the monks at the monastery, is sent to Rome both to report on and find out about the war criminal staying at the monastery, and conducts his own somewhat bumbling investigation, but seems to take everything that people tell him at face value, or else draws the wrong conclusions about what he is told.
So there are lots of good ingredients, but the mixture never quite seems to work. William Brodrick was a monk who later became a lawyer, and so he gets the monastic and the legal bits right. This is his first novel, so perhaps in his second he will get the story-telling bits right as well. ...more
Another book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A dry white season byAnother book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A dry white season by Andre Brink. In in Brink's book there is a kind of Kafkaesque horror that builds up relentlessly as a white Afrikaans-speaking school teacher gradually discovers what lies behind the mask of the society he lives in.
Jonty Driver tells much the same kind of story, but from the perspective of an English-speaking South African. In Shades of Darkness Jamie Cathcart, a school teacher who has been living in exile in England since the 1960s, returns to South Africa in the 1980s to see his brother who is dying of cancer. His return reawakens memories of the past, lost friends and lost love. In a way the cancer that was destroying his brother's life is an allegory of the cancer of the apartheid ideology that was eating South African society.
This book lacks the relentless build-up of horror in A dry white season, and in that sense it is more true to life. Much of the story deals with the ordinary things of life and death, health and sickness. For many white people who lived through the apartheid period, the underside of the society hardly intruded at all, and it was quite easy to ignore it and pretend that it was not there. For the protagonist of the story, however, it intrudes when some of his friends are detained by the Security Police, including one that he thought was completely a-political, and he becomes aware that he himself is under surveillance.
In some ways it is the story of my life and times, and at many points of the story I had a sort of "been there, done that" feeling. I don't have a brother, much less one who was dying of cancer, but the kind of society that Driver describes is real; it really was like that.
It is also one of the few novels I have read where I have known the author, though I did not know him well. Jonty Driver was an acquaintance, not a friend. He was president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) when I was a student, so I met him at a few student gatherings in South Africa and in England, and at a friend's wedding. But after reading this book, I feel I know him better, because in the book I think I can see the world through his eyes, and it looks quite similar in many ways to the world I saw. It's also a human story of love and loss, joy and grief, revenge and mercy.
If you've never been in South Africa, don't be put off reading it. Many people have enjoyed reading Doctor Zhivago even though they have never been to Russia, so you don't need to have been to South Africa to enjoy reading this one. ...more
By the end of the first chapter, I wasn't sure I wanted to continue reading it, because it was all about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ordinary middle-class people, that is. Actually fairly rich upper middle-class English people, that is, though one character had roots in Guyana.
It's about three siblings, their spouses and children, who have gathered to discuss their concerns about their mother, who has sold the house they grew up in and gone to live alone in a large and lonely house on Exmoor, the kind estate agents describe as "has potential" because it's in poor repair. Her children think she is crazy, but can't be bothered to go and see how she is getting on, because it's too far and too much trouble.
I thought that if I was going to be looking into the lives of ordinary people, I'd prefer to be doing family history research, because at least the people I'd be investigating were real people, rather than the product of some author's imagination. When I read fiction, I don't mind if the characters are ordinary, as long as extraordinary things are happening to them, but the things that were happening to this family seemed like very ordinary things. A sort of suburban Waiting for Godot. Banal thoughts, banal conversations, rather dull people. The only exciting thing is a children's game.
I don't much like reading about extraordinary people (Superman, Spiderman, He Man and the like). But I do like reading about ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. But the characters in the book didn't seem to be having extraordinary experiences -- at least for the first 150 pages.
Then mysterious things begin happening that rattle the comfortable birdcages, and their lives will never be the same again. To say too much about what happens would be a spoiler for those who haven't read it, and there are no Jack and the Beanstalk fantasy adventures. Everything that happens could happen in the everyday world, but they have a quality of being extraordinary nonetheless, and are as unpredictable to the reader as they are to the characters, except right at the end.
So I found the book more interested and enthralling as it went on, and well worth reading....more
I've been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28I've been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28 July 1914, with the Austria-Hungarian Empire's declaration of war on Serbia. Hostilities actually commenced on 29 July, with the Austrian shelling of Belgrade, but it was only on 4 August that German troops crossed the Belgian frontier, and only on 12 August that Austria actually invaded Serbia. German troops invaded neutral Luxembourg on 1 Agust, but the Luxembourg army did not resist, and German occupation was accepted under protest, but without fighting.
So 4 August 1914 was the day that rhetoric became reality, the start of the war that would be fought all over the world, and would last four years.
So this book, illustrated by the author, is a dramatic hour-by-hour account of the events of that day -- diplomatic, military and civilian.
The book was first published in 1970, a little over 50 years from the end of the war, and thus shortly after many of the restricted archival documents dealing with the war were released for public viewing. Thus the author can reveal not only Germany's public stand for peace and moderation with the deterioration of Austrian-Serbian relations following the assassination of the Archduke, but also that Germany secretly encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, in the belief that it would be a quick local war. When Russia began mobilising in support of Serbia, the Germans began to get cold feet, and urged restraint on Austria, but having been told that such peaceful utterances were for public consumption only, and were to be ignored, Austria went ahead anyway. German miliary planning required that France, Russia's ally, be attacked first, and the pathway to France lay through neutral Belgium, and so the fighting began, and brought Britain into the war. Many declarations of war preceded and followed this day, but this was the day on which serious fighting began.
Ian Ribbons bases his chronology on Greenwich mean time, so that one can see events that were happening almost simultaneously in widely separated places, and that only adds to the drama of the day. It would be a good read at any time, but on this day it is especially poignant. ...more
J.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significJ.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significant occasion. The action of the story takes place in the lead-up to his death and the funeral itself, and the memories of him that are prompted in the minds of his family, friends, and others who knew him.
In his final illness he shares some of his war-time memories with his grandson, Sam. Different people come to his funeral, and even his close family are sometimes surprised at the range of his contacts and acquaintances, from the homeless philosopher who lived in a culvert, to the teetotaller manager of a hotel chain who was a customer of the brewery where he worked until he retired.
I'd read a couple of other books by Jenny Hobbs before, and bought this one becazuse I was impressed by them, and their authenticity to place and time. Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary had in some ways a similar theme to this one, the parents of a freedom-fighter who has been killed by the police, as they keep vigil over the body of a child they hardly knew, thoughts prompted by death.
When I began reading this one, I was very impressed at the apparent authenticity. Most of the novels we read in South Africa are published overseas, and are set in far-away places, so one often doesn't know whether the descriotions are authentic or not.
But this one is set in Durban and Zululand, places where I have lived. The description of World War II soldiers and returning POWs wandering round Durban on arriving home sets the scene amazingly well. The description of Twiggie's Pie Cart in Market Square in Pietermaritzburg revived memories of 50 years ago.
I recalled my uncle returning from the War. I was four years old and we stood on Salisbury Island and watched the flying boat come in dropping over the harbour entrance, landing on the bay. Many of my friends had fathers who had fought in the war. And we also had several uncles who had fought in the war. It was part of growing up. So the memories of J.J. Kitching, and his friends' memories of him, were part of my growing up, and also part of the family history we have explored more recently.
My wife Val's father would never spoeak about his wartime experiences, until one day we pleaded with him to tell us the story of "Shit in Italy". He was captured at Tobruk and kept in a prison camp in Italy, from which he escaped. I wish we had had a tape recorder to record it, because we have now forgotten many of the details, but like the grandson Sam in the book, we were fascinated by the story.
Most of the memories are stirred and described during the funeral service, but that is where the story falls apart. The rugby players, young and old, are authentic. The ex-servicement, the MOTHs (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) are authentic. The homeless philososopher in the culvert may be stretching things a bit, but is plausible. But then the author has to go and spoil it all by introducing an altogether phony caricature of an Anglican bishop. The bishop is not an incidental character, because the funeral service is the setting for much of the book.
The funeral takes place in our time, no more than five years ago, but just about every detail rings false. I'm not familiar with the current Anglican funeral service, and haven't been able to find out much since I started reading the book, but if I were writing a book that revolved around a funeral service, I'd do a lot more research than Jenny Hobbs appears to have done. The words of the service swing from Elizabethan to modern English. I once knew an Anglican bishop of Natal who might have entertained ambitious thoughts like the fictional bishop in the book, but he retired forty (40) years ago, and what we are presented with is a caricature from the 1950s, or even the 1920s, in a story set in about 2010. It's OK to have a fictitious cathedral in a real city for the sake of the story. But it's a pity that when there seems to have been so much research into some of the historical details (like the diets of prisoners in German POW camps), there has been so little into the hub that the story revolves around. Anglican bishops in South Africa are never referred to as "His Grace", for one thing, and and there are numeous other bogus details.
Forty years ago I was present at quite a number of Anglican funerals in Durban, and even back then they were none of them like this. Sometimes they were pathetic -- five MOTHs bidding farewell to a dead comrade, asking to play the Last Post, and one of them pulling out a tinny little portable tape recorder to play it. But nothing as phony as the one in this book.
When I began reading the book, I thought I'd give it four or five stars, but the more I read, the more the rating dropped.
A historical novel based on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was carried out by members of Narodnaya VolyaA historical novel based on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was carried out by members of Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will), one of the world's first terrorist organisations.
Andrew Williams explores the motives and the methods of the terrorists, and the use of violence as a political tool -- a tool that was employed both by the terrorists and by the secret police who tried to catch them.
The story of The People's Will is intertwined with the love story of an English doctor, Frederick Hadfield, who falls in love with one of the terrorists, and because of his association with her comes under suspicion by the secret police.
Though they were sometimes called "Nihilists", the political reforms that The People's Will wanted were rather mild liberal ones: representative government, freedom of speech, and things like that. In that respect the assassination was counter-productive, as the Tsar was about to introduce some of those reforms when he was killed, and the assassination led to increased state repression.
There are some parallels with South African history too.
Tsar Alexander II was a reformer, and one of the features of reform is that increases the demand for reform. Those who want reform demand that the pace of reform be speeded up, and so reform tends to encourage revolution. It leads me to wonder what would have happened in South Africa if F.W. de Klerk had been assassinated in January 1990, just before he announced his reforms, which included the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of political prisoners. It might have led to a period of even worse repression, as the assassination of Alexander II did in Russia.
I also compare The People's Will with the African Resistance Movement, a group of South Africans from the privileged classes who resorted to using violence to bring about political reforms. The difference is that they weren't dedicated terrorists, and lacked the dedication of the hard-crore revolutionaries of The People's Will.
The book thus raises questions about the use of violence and terrorism to achieve political reform. It doesn't give answers, though in this case history itself gave the answer. ...more
I suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was iI suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was it as long ago as that? And the author wasn't even born then.
Tinashe is a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village, ocasionally visited by his rich uncle from the city and his cousin. He dreams of going to school and university, like his uncle, but his cousin doesn't seem to value these things. Tinashe's younger sister, Hazvinei, is strange, and communes with spirits. Her brother, and other people, sometimes find her rather frightening, but he feels obliged to care for her, even when it threatens to disrupt his education.
In some ways it is like an African version of David Copperfield or The catcher in the rye, but it is also bound up with the surreal and unpredictabe world of Shona mythology, where the spirits can make people feel invincible at one moment and dash all their hopes the next. ...more
The book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parteThe book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parted, at a hotel that was linked to the events that caused them to part. They reflect on the events that led up to their parting, which involve a mysterious "Lingonberry Woman", and the divergent interpretations of their shared experience, naturalistic and supernaturalistic, that eventually caused them to part.
The story is almost allegorical, with the main characters standing for two worldviews, a technique that is shared with some of Jostein Gaarder's other books. In the end, neither the philosophical nor the narrative mystery is solved, and both are left hanging. I can understand this in the case of the philosophical mystery of the natrualistic or supernaturalistic worldviews, but in the case of the narrative mysteries it makes the story a bit unsatisfactory.
Perhaps I am missing some literary allusions, but the title is one of the mysteries. All the action takes place in Norway, and none in the Pyrenees -- the closest the characters get to the Pyrenees is a trip to Normandy, which is mentioned in passing. And the "Lingonberry Woman" apparently has nothing to do with lingonberries (whatever they may be). She neither gathers them, nor eats them, nor offers them to the characters to eat. It might have been more appropriate to call her the "Foxglove Woman" since the characters are looking at foxgloves when they encounter her.
Marc Lucas is a soWhen I began reading this book, it reminded me of The double by Fyodor Dostoevsky, with the atmosphere of Kafka's novels thrown in.
Marc Lucas is a social worker, miserable and grieving because he has lost his wife in a motor accident. He does, however, succeed in saving the life of a suicidal teenager. He sees an advertisement for a clinic that claims to be able to remove painful memories, and decides to visit it. He discovers that they are conducting memory experiments, and will give him complete amnesia, and then reload the pleasant memories, and decides not to participate, and leaves without signing anything. Then his nightmare begins.
It seems that his identity has been stolen. All the addresses have been wiped from his cell phone, his credit cards no longer work. He goes home to get medicine he needs to take because of the after-effects of the accident in which his wife dies, and the keys of his flat no longer work, but his wife answers the door, alive and pregnant, but no longer recognising him.
He is befriended by a woman who claims that she too is a victim of the same conspiracy, but then she appears to betray him, making him believe that she too is part of the conspiracy. The things that happen to him become more and more irrational and arbitrary, but the end, when all is revealed, turns out not to be like Dostoevsky or Kafka at all, but something far more prosaic, and far less believable. After reading the first few chapters, I was thinking that this would be a five-star book, but by the end it had dropped to three.
When I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally thatWhen I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that would have been enough to make me put the book back on the shelf and look for something else, but I recalled that I had just read another book by Sam Bourne and it hadn't been nearly as bad as anything written by Dan Brown, so I thought I'd take a chance on it anyway. It was remaindered and going cheap so I wouldn't lose too much if it was a serious contender for Dan Brown's crown as a writer of trash.
But the cover blurb certainly influenced the way I read the book -- looking for comparisons with Dan Brown.
There are some superficial resemblances to The da Vinci code (the only Dan Brown novel I've read). The main characters are a man and a woman who meet and get hooked into travelling around ostensibly trying to solve a mystery together. Unlike Dan Brown's characters, they have more believable professions -- a doctor and a lawyer. And though it turns out that they are investigating a conspiracy, it is based on a real historical one, and not an imaginary bogus one.
Though the characters and many of the incidents in the story are fictitious, the historical setting is for the most part real. Like The da Vinci code, the story has several plot holes, but they are not as numerous and obtrusive as those in The da Vinci code. There are a couple of points at which the reader's credulity is strained, a sort of "this kind of thing just doesn't happen" moment, and then one thinks of former US President George Bush's "extraordinary rendition", and one realises that of course it does happen. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "Truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it."
I won't say too much about the actual story, because of the danger of spoilers. A suspected terrorist is shot outside the UN headquarters in New York, but turns out to be an apparently harmless old man. Lawyer Tom Byrne, who formerly worked for the UN, is hired to offer hush money the victim's family so they don't make a fuss about it, but gets a crush on the victim's daughter, which complicates things. It seems that shadowy people are looking for something that they suspect her father of having had, possibly his World War II memoir of persecution of the Jews and resistance movements against Nazi occupation, which the old man had been involved in.
It's not outstanding, but it's quite a good read, and the tale is quite well told. In that respect, Dan Brown doesn't come anywhere near challenging it. ...more
It was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thoughtIt was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thought it might be OK for some light bedtime reading. I suppose it does fit into the horror genre, just. It's also a sort of half-baked whodunit (one of the main characters is a detective, though he doesn't do much detecting.
I suppose in that there are some very faint echoes of Phil Rickman, who seems to hover uncertainly between the supernatural horror and whodunit genres, with his more recent works leaning (to my disappointment) to the latter. But Rickman's books have character and plot; this book has neither. And Shaun Hutson seem to try to cover over the lack of such things by playing the grossout card, right from the very first chapter, going over the top with blood and gore. Oh and the obligatory sex scenes with "throbbing members" -- it was, after all, first published in the 1980s, when most publishers seemed to make such scenes obligatory. In this book, however, they are combined with the "fetid stench" of still-throbbing freshly disembowelled entrails. The trouble is that when you have a "fetid stench" in every second chapter (and there are seventy chapters) one's sense of literary smell tends to become a bit jaded.
The book has a bunch of archaeologists who discover a cave with inscriptions and skeletons. Some of them meet with nasty accidents, which apparently serve no purpose in the plot other than to provide the occasion for another grossout. The archaeologists seem to know as little about archaeology as the detectives do about detecting.
As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy GraAs I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.
Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.
This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James's best books I've read so far. ...more
I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at tI enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.
David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.
David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.
C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.
In some ways the book reminded me of
by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.
One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.
Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might have beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a "big Volvo", used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).
I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime. ...more
Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidnaDetective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidnapped by her mother Angelina Upman. Since Azhar is not registered as Hadiyyah's father, it is not a matter for the police, so Havers puts him in touch with a private detective.
Angelina makes a reappearance when it turns out that Hadiyyah had been kidnapped from her mother, this time in Italy, and the action moves to that country, where a new detective hero emerges, Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, who has to battle with an obstinate superior who wasnts a suspect, any suspect, to get the media off their backs. He works with Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard to search for the missing girl.
It is a long story (over 700 pages), with many plot twists, and at several points the reader's credulity is strained as Havers breaks one rule of police procedure after another.
In the afternoon I started to read The old man and the sea. I couldn't remember if I had read it before, but as it is a short book it coulodn't do anyIn the afternoon I started to read The old man and the sea. I couldn't remember if I had read it before, but as it is a short book it coulodn't do any harm to read it again. I think before I started but did not finish it. It's about an old fisherman who has been unlucky for 84 days, and really needs to catch something. So he goes out to catch a big fish.
But it struck me as weird. I have this image of Hemingway as the grand macho hunting', shootin' and fishing type, who knows all there is to know about game animals and game fish, and yet here he is describing dolphins as having gills. It sticks out like a sore thumb. I'm reading a school edition, with notes. Surely there must be a note on that. But no, there isn't. Is it just that the people who wrote the notes are equally ignorant, or that they don't want to suggest any weakness in the great master?
And it strikes me that if Hemigway is so ignorant of such an elementary fact of marine biology as that, does the rest of what he writes count for anything at all? How can he write about an old man and the sea and its creatures when he is that ignorant?
The topic of the sciences versus the humanities seems to have come up quite a lot recently, and I blogged about it last month here The dissing of theThe topic of the sciences versus the humanities seems to have come up quite a lot recently, and I blogged about it last month here The dissing of the humanities | Khanya. It has also come up in various discussion forums. In one such forum I was reminded of the Victorian myth of the polymath scientist, when the media make Richard Dawkins, a biologist, an instant expert on topics like philosophy, theology and history.
And then I picked up this book.
I've been gradually entering our books into a database, so that we can see which ones we've read and which ones we haven't. We have sometimes bought books that we already have, so it's not quite as silly as it may seem. But how we got this book, I cannot remember. A street book stall, perhaps. It was marked down from R1.95 to 59c to 10c, and perhaps we bought it just because it was cheap.
It's written by a Shakespearian scholar, so it comes down firmly on the side of the humanities. It was published in 1966, just a year or two before student power demonstrations broke out all over. It would probably not appeal to feminists at all, as all the main characters are male, and the only strong female character is almost, but not quite, the villain of the piece. But it does highlight some of the problems and tensions that arise if the sciences and the humanities are kept apart, and 45 years later genetic engineering is still a live issue.
So I found it a surprisingly good read, but perhaps that's because I'm prejudiced in favour of the humanities. ...more
Several students are shot by police in a campus demonstration at a small US college, and three are killed. Six policemen were put on trial for the shoSeveral students are shot by police in a campus demonstration at a small US college, and three are killed. Six policemen were put on trial for the shootings, and were acquitted. Five years later some of those affected by the shooting plan a memorial gathering, bringing together the survivors, the parents of the dead students, members of staff and stuents of the college, and, the organisers hope, members of the police and the local community.
The story is told through the eyes of different participants -- the parents of the dead students, some of the survivors, the judge at the trial of the policemen, the defence layer, and one of the main witnesses.
The parents of the dead students have mixed motives. Some want revenge and vindication, some just want to forget and "move on".
I can't remember when we bought this book, but, realising that I had not read it before, I took it down and began reading, and found it rather good. The narratives show the different outlooks of different characters, some certain, with clear goals, others filled with doubts, wondering what they are doing, and yet others tring rather desperately not to allow anything to shake the wall of their own self-perception that they have built around themselves.
So I'm glad I found it; iot was definitely worth a read. ...more
A student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. HiA student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. His colleague Annie Cabbot, seconded to another division, is called to investigate the murder of a disabled inmate of a home in the coastal town of Whitby. Subsequent investigations reveal links between the two cases, which have historical roots going back to previous cases, and events in described in some of Robinson's earlier books.
As a police procedural/whodunit it is up to Peter Robinson's usual high standards for the most part, though it seemed to get off to a rather shaky start. Having been a student myself, albeit a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that if one of my friends had disappeared after we'd been to pubs in town, we would have been very concerned about it, and would have been anxious to contact the police before they contacted us (though in South Africa in those days we might also have considered the possibility that the police themselves might have been responsible for the disappearance). So there is an air of unreality about the first few chapters of the story, where the friends of the missing student seem quite uncaring, and even after discovering that she was murdered, seem reluctant to get involved.
Though Peter Robinson lives in Canada his books, set in Yorkshire, have generally seemed fairly authentic to me. But in this one I noticed a transatlantic drift. He used "momentarily" in the American sense of "in a moment" rather than the more usual one of "for a moment", and also used "moot" in a transatlantic sense of "not worth debating" rather than "debatable". Most notably several of the characters are described as rolling their eyes.
Now it's quite a long time since I lived in the UK, and for all I know people there have adopted eye-rolling widely, and similarly the other modes of expression, but it struck me as a bit out of place.
I quite enjoyed the only other book by Camilla Läckberg that I have read, The stonecutter, but I doubt that I'll finish this one. It is simply too fruI quite enjoyed the only other book by Camilla Läckberg that I have read, The stonecutter, but I doubt that I'll finish this one. It is simply too frustrating and incomprehensible.
One of the early scenes is a funeral. At first it is not clear who has died or how, but then there is some reference to "the accident". I'm now 120 pages into the book, and there have been several more references to "the accident", but I'm still not sure what happened, who was involved in it, or how it affects the plot of the book, other than that it seems to have resulted in the protagonist, detective Patrik Hedstrom, not being able to work full time. Though at times it seems that that may have been the result of illness rather than "the accident".
Perhaps all this is made clear in the previous book in the series, but to find out would mean going out searching bookshops for a book that may by now be out of print. This seems to be becoming a trend, and a rather annoying one. I noticed it when reading the books of Louise Penny, where there were references to things that had happened in previous books of the series, but in those it did not affect one's understanding of the book one was actually reading. In The lost boy, however, it simply makes Camilla Läckberg another author to cross off my list. Unless I get very, very bored, I'll probably never finish it. ...more
Eleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth's rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync witEleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth's rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync with the procession of days and nights. At first there is panic, and people behave strangely. Julia's best friend, a Mormon, moves with her family to Utah. A Jewish family is not sure when to observe the Sabbath.
For a schoolgirl the problems of friendship, popularity and peer pressure are exacerbated by the changes in the environment. As nights lengthen, crops are threatened by the lack of sunlight, and people begin hoarding food. Animals begin to behave in strange ways, and some species become extinct.
The story is not altogether believable, as some things that one would expect to be affected by the changes appear not to be. Though the wheat supply is threatened, there seems to be no problem in ordering pizzas, and ice cream continues to be readily available, through fresh fruit is not. People in the middle-class suburb where Julia lives still appear to go to work every day, even though one would expect there to be massive unemployment in sectors affected by the changes.
The story is told through the eyes of a child, of course, and one would not expect a child to know of everything that was happening. Apart from a few discrepancies, it is well told, and a good read. ...more
This book is about the 1970s as you probably don't remember them.
A quick glance at the cover and at the blurb gives the impression that it is a kind oThis book is about the 1970s as you probably don't remember them.
A quick glance at the cover and at the blurb gives the impression that it is a kind of cultural history of an era. For Francis Wheen the Seventies began existentially when he decided to drop out. As he describes it:
With my rucksack and guitar in hand, I came to London on 27 December 1973 brimming with the ambition and optimism of the Sixties -- a dream of change, a sense of limitless possibility -- only to find the Seventies enveloping the city like a pea-souper.
In another place he is more explcit:, when discussing when the Sixties ended and the seventies began:
So it goes for most of us as we try to reconcile our private histories with a public narrative. Philip Larkin, recording the start of free love in 1963, lamented that 'this was rather late for me.' For me, alas, it was rather too early. I came to the party a full decade later, on 27 December 1973, when I caught a train to London from suburban Kent, having left a note on the kitchen table advising my parents that I'd gone to join the alternative society and wouldn't be back. An hour or so later, clutching my rucksack and guitar, I arrived at the 'BIT Alternative Help and Information Centre,' a hippy hangout on Westbourne Park Road which I'd often seen mentioned in the underground press. 'Hi,' I chirruped. 'I've dropped out.' I may even have babbled something about wanting to build the counter-culture. This boyish enthusiasm was met by groans from a furry freak slumped on the threadbare sofa. 'Drop back in, man,' he muttered through a dense foliage of beard. 'You're too late... It's over.' And so it was. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, had declared a state of emergency in November, his fifth in just over three years...
The promise these passages (and he blurb on the cover) give of the reconciliation of private histories with public narrative is not fulfilled. We are not told whether or how Francis Wheen dropped back in, or how he spent the rest of the Seventies. He presumably survived, or he wouldn't have written the book. So I was expecting a cultural history, but instead it was more of a political history, and the political history of the 1970s was laced with paranoia, at least according to Wheen.
So having established what the book is not, what is it?
It's the public narrative turned inside out.
Those of us who lived through the Seventies remember some of the headlines, and some of the major events. But what Francis Wheen does is take us behind the scenes, backstage, as it were, to see the stage props, and the actors without their make up. What were the motives for the much publicised political decisions? What was Edward Heath really up to with his successive states of emergency? What was the story behind Watergate, or Nixon's rapprochement with China, or the Allende coup in Chile? What was really going on with nihilistic terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Tupamaros urban guerrillas in Uruguay, or the Symbionese Liberation Army?
Wheen has trawled through the various memoirs, diaries, letters and papers published by people close to the seats of power, and revealed some of the conversations about and motives for some of the decisions that were announced in the press. These documents were not available at the time, and it is only now that the inside stories can be revealed. Books have been published, archives made available, and Wheen concludes that Nixon, Heath and most of the other world leaders at the time were barking mad and quite paranoid. The Seventies were the paranoid decade, and that paranoia was the decade's major bequest to those who followed.
Most of us don't have time to read those documents, and so Francis Wheen has done it for us and made a digest of it to save us the trouble.
The trouble is that his selection of events to record would not have been mine. The events that stood out for him were not those that stood out for me, even in the public narrative.
Living in South Africa we were only very vaguely aware of Britains "winter of discontent" and its "Who governs Britain?" election (Answer: Nobody).
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 (40th anniversary at time of writing, but Telkom alone knows when I'll get to post this) made more of an impact. It meant the reopening of the Suez Canal, and within a few months I no longer looked out from my front door in Durban North on 30 or more ships in the roadstead waiting to enter Durban harbour, and one could walk on Durban's beaches without the lumps of crude oil making them took like the aftermath of an explosion in a Marmite factory.
There were some consequences of the Yom Kippur War that Wheen does mention, though -- reduced oil production, rising fuel prices, and fuel restrictions . The fuel restrictions (in South Africa) were announced in November 1973, with speed limits in towns of 50 km/h and on open roads of 80 km/h. On 30 November I was driving into town from Durban North along Umgeni Road -- the traffic was preferable to the sleep-inducing boredom of driving on the freeway at 50 km/h. I stopped at a robot and an Indian guy in the car next to me shouted, "Have you filled your tank, petrol is going up to a Rand a gallon." Several other people told me the same thing on that day. Rumours abounded, and queues at filling stations were long. Now I doubt if we'll see the fuel price as low as a Rand a litre again. But back then we were suddenly aware that whether we used it quickly or slowly, oil had to come to an end some day. Someone somewhere said that if every adult male Indian used toilet paper, the world's paper supply would be exhausted in two weeks. So yes, Wheen was right about that. The Seventies was a time of the feeling of an approaching disaster, of inflation and the imminent end of the world.
But in South Africa it was also the decade in which PW Botha and Magnus Malan decided to invade Angola (Wheen did not consult any diaries of their associates) and thus of what the South African public were led to believe was the "Border War", though much of it took place a long way from any borders.
In the 1960s, under Vorster, South Africa had turned into a police state, but with the accession of P.W. Botha there was a military take-over, By the end of the Seventies the "Border War" had mutated into the "total onslaught" and South Africa came to be ruled by a military junta which lasted throughout the 1980s.
So in Wheen's book I was expecting more of a cultural history of the 1970s, though there was not much of that. But the book did inspire me to think of how we do reconcile our private histories with public narratives, even if Wheen does not deliver on this. I'll continue with that theme on my blog, since it drifts away from the actual content of the book.
This is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the onThis is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the one we bought first, because of the blurb, and only after getting it did we discover that there is a metastory that runs through the series, with the same characters popping up again and again.
Chief Inspector Gamache is on leave in Quebec, recovering from injuries received in an earlier shoot-out, and is asked ny the local police to help with a case -- an amateur archaeologist, notorious for his obsession with finding the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, is murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, an English-speaking institution. The murder could increase tensions between the French and English-speaking communities of the city, and Gamache is asked to help because he speaks better English. He has also been doing some historical research of his own in the library.
I suppose one of the reasons I like books like this is my own interest in historical research, and so mysteries of the past that have repercussions in the present are the kind of thing I like reading about. Added to that is that my wife Val's great great grandfather, William John Green, was born in Quebec in 1790, so the city is the setting of a historical mystery that has exercised many members of the Green family for more than a century. The period is entirely different to that of the story in this book, but the setting is the same, and the book gives a feel for the city and its present inhabitants.
In addition there are some more historical threads in this book. Gamache keeps having flashbacks to an earlier case, where he feels he failed, and he sends his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, to have another look at yet another case, which he thinks may have gone wrong, in the village of Three Pines, which seems to crop up in all these novels. These cases may have been covered in a couple of the books that we haven't read, so mentioning too many details may be spoilers for the books we haven't read yet.
There are a couple of things about the series that become slightly annoying -- Louise Penny seems to be more given to detailed descriptions of every meal the characters eat than Enid Blyton and I, for one, get a bit tired of reading yet another description of maple-cured bacon and other Canadian delicacies. But it is generally a good read. ...more
This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal.
I'm beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I've read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I'm beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby's exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.
The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.
In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.
One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny's novels seem to have the same mix.
That's enough for now -- I'll need to read more to see where the series is going.
This is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, anThis is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, and try to solve the mystery. Most of the others these days withhold such clues from the reader, perhaps to resist spoilers, and the detective protagonist trots out the solution at the end, revealing for the first time the clues that enabled him to solve the case. Perhaps that's because most of the crime fiction publishjed nowadays are police procedurals or psychological examinations of the criminal mind -- the whydunits.
In any case, I managed to work out the identity of the perpetrators about halfway through, because the clues were available.
Of course crime fiction is not true life crime. The author can go around scattering clues for the detectives (and the readers) to pick up, but in real life criminals rarely do that.
Dead cold is the second of a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, We actually bought the sixth one (Bury your dead) on a sale, and discovered references to earlier books featuring some of the same characters, and tried to get the first one, but it was not available, so I've started reading the series with the second book.
Chief Inspector Gamache is dealing with two murders -- one of a homeless woman in Montreal, and the other of an interior designer in the village of Three Pines, 100 km away. The first case is not really his, but one that he is giving a second opinion on, by an informal arrangement with a friend in the Montreal police. One of the biggest difficulties is to find the identity of the victims.
A minor mystery is that [Book:Dead cold] was originally published under the title of [Book:A fatal grace], and one wonders why the title was changed. The most notorious example of this was the change of [Book:Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone] to [Book:Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone], but it seems to be a confusing and unnecessary practice. Is it done for copyright re4asons, or just because publishers like to confuse readers, or perhaps dupe them into buying two copies of the same book, thinking that, becxause it has a different title, they haven't already read it? ...more