When I went to the library I was looking for another book by Donna Tartt that had been recommended, but it wasn't available, so I took this one out inWhen I went to the library I was looking for another book by Donna Tartt that had been recommended, but it wasn't available, so I took this one out instead. It's a kind of cross between the Secret Seven and The Client by John Grisham -- the former because it is about children trying to solve a crime, and the second because they find that tangling with criminals can be very scary indeed.
There is not much one can say about it without including spoilers, but I can say that it is very well written indeed, and I found it hard to put down. It has interesting and well-described characters, especially the protagonist Harriet, who sets out to solve the mystery of her brother's death, which occurred when she was a baby. Her main adult contact is with her grandmother and three great aunts, and Ira, the maid.
Also, having given up reading one American book, Underworld, because it required a rather specialised knowledge of baseball and its place in North American culture, I was relieved that the first mention of baseball in this book came on page 331, and was only brief, in spite of the main characters being American school children of 11 and 12 years old in the summer.
One of the minor mysteries for me as a reader was trying to work out the period in which the story is set. It was published in 2002, but it is set in a period earlier than that -- there are no cellphones or even personal computers. One of the great-aunts was a student at the turn of the century, which would place it in the early 1960s, but other indications put it later than that -- the grandmother has 20-year-old car that was bought in the late 1950s. My best guess is that it is set in the period 1975-1978.
If you like crime stories, with rich descriptions and interesting characters, you might enjoy this one. I did. ...more
Spy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian FlemingSpy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian Fleming and given more impetus by the more serious and realistic novels of John le Carre, but they had been around for quite a while before that, and this is one set in the period of tension leading up to the Second World War. It's only about a third of the length of many of the Cold War spy thrillers, but that, if anything makes it more readable and more sharply focused. In looking for a postwar novel in the same genre I suppose the one that comes closest is The day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.
It's not just a spy story, it's a crime novel as well, and perhaps even more so. In that respect the contrast with postwar crime novels is quite marked. I'd just finished reading Blood on the Tongue, which is set in much the same area of England, and what stands out is the difference in police procedures. In the prewar novel, the police circulate numbers of stolen banknotes to shops and railway booking offices in a town the size of London with remarkable efficiency for pre-Internet days. and everyone throughout the country is aware of the description of a wanted man. This makes it very easy to trace the suspect. In post war crime novels, the police have suspects, but can't find them, and when they do find out that they are not the perpetrators. They discover the real perpetrators by chance as often as not.
I suspect that the recent ones are more accurate, and the pre-war ones give an exaggerated idea of police efficiency and resources. Back then they never seemed to discuss the budget available for their investigations, though Graham Greene does have some digs at differences in medical treatment for people of different classes.
H. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the "lost world" genre of litH. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the "lost world" genre of literature. Like many of his books, this one is set in Africa, in the imaginary kingdom, or perhaps one should say queendom of Mur, ruled by Maqueda, a descendant King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Richard Adams, a British medical doctor, who had wandered the world practising his trade, met and married an Egyprian woman in Cairo, and also met an Egyptologist, Professor Ptolemy Higgs, whom he cured of typhoid, thus earning his gratitude. Adams's wife dies, and their only son is kidnapped, and many years later Adams has news of his son who is a slave of the Fung tribe in North Central Africa. Maqueda's people, the Abati, are traditional enemies of the Fung, and avoid being conquered by the Fung because they live in an inaccessible valley surrounded by mountains. Maqueda tells Adams of a prophecy that the Fung will leave if their sphinx-like idol is destroyed, and if Adams does that, the Abati will help him release his son.
Adams returns to Britain, taking the Queen of Sheba's ring to prove his bona fides, and enlists Professor Higgs (who is drawn by Adams's stories of ancient artifacts) and a soldier, Captain Oliver Orme, with his sidekick Sergeant Samuel Quick, and they return to Mur with the explosives needed to blow up the idol, with the two soldiers having the necessary expertise in their use.
Unlike some of Haggard's earlier books, this one seems rather contrived and unconvincing. Queen Sheba's Ring was first published in 1910, by which time most of Africa had been colonised by European powers, and very few parts remained unknown to Europeans. Perhaps Mur was in the south of Libya, which had not yet been colonised by Italy. Soon after this book was written, modern communications ensured that most educated people in most parts of the world were at least aware of the existence of places and peoples living in continents other than their own, though I am sometimes surprised by the degree of geographical ignorance displayed by contestants in quiz shows. So Rider Haggard was pushing the "lost world" trope a bit hard, though the success of Tarzan stories, and later Indiana Jones, showed that there was still a little juice that could be squeezed out of it. But most writers looking for imaginary settings moved their stories to other planets, which gave them more scope for developing exotic civilizations.
In reading this book, however, I was constantly being reminded of the time in which it was written, because if strongly reflects the arms race that preceded the First World War.
In Britain, the Liberal Party, especially, reacted against the aggressive imperialism and violence that had led to the Second Anglo-Boer War. In Queen Sheba's Ring Haggard shows himself as a convinced militarist, stressing the need for arms production and military training and conscription. At times I wondered if he had been asked, or even paid by the "hawks" in the Conservative Party to write a book that would do this.
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.
Jeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for geJeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for generations, because they can no longer afford to maintain it. The children discover a hidden map showing the whereabouts of the family treasure, hidden for many years, and if they can find the treasure, their grandparents will not have to sell the house. But there is already a potential buyer, Mr Potts, who is also after the treasure, and is determined to get the map from the children.
I can't remember when or where I first read the book, but I must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and it was a copy that belonged to someone elee, so I wasn't able to re-read it. Jeffery the eldest of the children, made a big impression on me -- so much so that when I wrote a children's novel of my own many years later (Of wheels and witches), I borrowed his name, and something of what I had imagined his character to be.
On rereading it as an adult, more than sixty years later, I am struck by different things. I can see why there was a period when librarians didn't like Enid Blyton. There are some things about her style that I found annoying as an adult, though as a child I didn't notice them. There is an over use of exclamation marks. The children are always telling each other how clever they are and exclaiming about the obvious. There is the usual Enid Blyton food porn. This gives the impression that Enid Blyton is writing down to children, and I was struck by the contrast with, say, the Harry Potter books, where the style is so much better.
But after the first couple of chapters either the style improves, or else one gets caught up in the story so that the defects are less noticiable. There are a few reminders of how society has changed since the book was first written, assumptions about gender roles, for example. The children discover an abandoned summer house, and when they decide to clean it up, "Susan took charge of the cleaning, because she was the girl." But at least her brothers helped her.
It's a simple story with a simple plot, but still an enjoyable read after all these years.
It's interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]'s Brave NewIt's interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]'s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I've just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.
It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.
When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.
I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round -- that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.
It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.
Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.
I find the social differences interesting too, because I'm also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past. Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it's still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years' time too, ...more
I'm never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked besI'm never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked best are Needful Things, Pet Sematary and The girl who loved Tom Gordon. I've generally enjoyed his supernatural horror stories rather than his science fiction ones or other genres, though The girl who loved Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the woods, is neither science fiction nor horror.
I read a couple of his science fiction ones, including a UFO novel, The Tommyknockers, which I thought was his worst. So when I picked up The Dreamcatcher at the library, I wasn't expecting much, but thought that as it was only a library book, I didn't need to feel I had to finish it. In the end I did finish it. It was a page turner, in the sense that I wanted to see what happened, but it confirmed my opinion that King is better at writing about spooks than about space aliens. Dreamcatcher was better than The Tommyknockers but not much.
The story line was disjointed and made little sense, and thoughout the story telepathy seems to be overused as a deus ex machina. The eponymous "dreamcatcher" is never really explained in any coherent way. The main characters are unreal; we are told virtually nothing about their families, and they hardly ever think of them or miss them when they are experiencing tough times.
But there is also a kind of moral thread running through the story. Stephen King clearly has a lot of sympathy for bullied children, and one could say that there is a moral in the story: be kind to bullied and disabled children.
A possible explanation for this might be that King had been in a serious accident, and appears to have written this book while recovering from it, and one of the characters experiences a similar accident, and goes through similar suffering. The girl who lived Tom Gordon, written shortly before the accident, was a much better book. ...more
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
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
When I began reading this book, I thought it was in the same genre as 1984 and Brave New World. It is set in a dystopian future, roughly in the area oWhen I began reading this book, I thought it was in the same genre as 1984 and Brave New World. It is set in a dystopian future, roughly in the area of the present USA, which in the book is called Panem, and is divided into twelve districts, each dedicated to one kind of economic activity. There had been thirteen districts, but one had been wiped out in a rebellion against the Capitol, a new capital city somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. To keep the districts in line each has to pay tribute in the form of a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who have to fight to the death in an arena, with the last survivor being the victor, and entitled to live a life of luxury from then on.
The "tributes" are chosen by lot, but Katniss Everdeen, aged 16, volunteers to take her younger sister's place. She sets off for the Capitol with the local baker's son, who has occasionally been kind to her in the past, realising that they might have to kill each other.
Once they get into the arena, another genre crops up, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which the scene in the arena resembles. I read other three books I have mentioned in my late teens, at the age at which I would have been eligible to have been chosen for the games had I been a subject of the fictional state of Panem. I've read all three of those books several times since, so it's a genre that I find appealing, and have for a long time.
Though Brave New World and 1984 are set in the future (at least, in the case of 1984, at the time when it was written) they satirise present trends in society by extrapolating them into the future. In the case of Brave New World the main trend is mass production, and hedonistic pleasure seeking. In the case of 1984 it is the surveillance society, and in both there is the bombardment of citizens by propaganda to enforce conformity to a totalitarian society. In the case of Brave New World this is done primarily by distracting people by the pursuit of pleasure and recreation. In the case of 1984 it is done by fear and threat. And in The Hunger Games it is done by both.
The present trend that is extrapolated into the future in The Hunger Games is "reality" TV shows. One of the first of these, Big Brother, deliberately recalled 1984. In The Hunger Games it is this that places it in the same genre.
I bought The Hunger Games because people I knew had read it and blogged about it, and their comments made it sound interesting. And as I read The Hunger Games I thought it was as good as, if not better than the others I have mentioned. I had noticed that it was the first of a trilogy, and when I was about half-way through I was thinking that it was a seriously good book, and had just about made up my mind to buy the otrher books in the series. I was preparing to give it four or five stars on Good Reads.
But in the end I gave it only three stars, because about two-thirds of the way into the story the author seemed to have fumbled the ball and lost the plot. The climax built up, the tension mounted, and then suddenly the whole thing just collapsed. Or so it seemed to me.
I won't say which point I think that was, for the sake of those who haven't read the book, and some might disagree with me on that point anyway. But in my blog, where I'll also post this, I'll invite people to say something about it in the comments, which those who haven't read the book can avoid reading if they think it might spoil the book for them.
A bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he cA bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he chooses is The shadow of the wind by an almost unknown novelist, Julian Carax.
The boy reads the book and enjoys it, and tries to find other books by the same author, but they are impossible to find, and he soon discovers that others are interested in his book, and he is made several lucrative offers, one from a person named after one of the characters in the book. He refuses them all.
As he grows up, he becomes more interested in solving the mystery of the book, and what happened to its author, and it soon becomes apparent that such a quest is dangerous, and that there are powerful people and forces intent on stopping him.
To say more would be a spoiler, and it is otherwise difficult to describe this book: a literary detective story, a tale of star-crossed lovers, a fantasy novel, an adventure-thriller. It's a cross between Romeo and Juliet, The Eyre affair and the film Pan's labyrinth, and more besides. At times, with the description of encounters with the police of the Franco era in Spain, it felt familiar, like the old apartheid South Africa, with echoes of A dry white season.
Edward Hammond is a surgeon who once, for a large fee, performed a liver transplant on Dragan Gazi, a gangster who was later on trial for war crimes iEdward Hammond is a surgeon who once, for a large fee, performed a liver transplant on Dragan Gazi, a gangster who was later on trial for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. He is about to go on holiday when Gazi's daughter approaches him an blackmails him into searching for the accountant who controls Gazi's fortune. If he does not fulfil the request, she says, Gazi will reveal that part of his payment was the morder of Hammond's estranged wife Kate, who was indeed murdered by unknown assailants shortly after Hammond's return from Belgrade, where he had performed the surgery.
It does not appear to have occurred to Hammond that he could have gone to the police straightaway, and told them that he had new information relating to his wife's murder. But of course if he had, there would have been no story, or a very different one.
As with most of Goddard's novels, actions of mysteries of the past come back to haunt characters in the present, and this one is as good as most of Goddard's novels, where nothing is as it seems, and the shiftina alliances and loyalties of the characters keep one guessing to the end.
I've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the othersI've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the others were disappointing.
I suppose I might have enjoyed 'Salem's lot by Stephen King if I had not aleady read Dracula several times; it might then have come to me as something fresh and exciting. As it was, it seemed entirely predictable.
I read Interview with the vampire by Anne Rice because someone had told me about it, and forced myself to stick it out to the end, boring as it was, just to be able to say I had actually read it, and did not dismiss it as not worth reading just from prejudice.
The historian is the first vampire book I have read that seems to be a fitting sequel to Dracula. Not only is it a fitting sequel, I think it surpasses the original.
Perhaps I should digress from the books for a moment to describe an interesting event that took place at the University of South Africa nearly 20 years ago. Some people came and delivered a lecture on Dracula. They were from the Transylvanian Society of Dracula in Romania, and for them Dracula, as in Bram Stoker's novel, was a new and exciting discovery. With the fall of the Communist Party regime a few years before, Romania had a sudden influx of tourists and journalists looking for Dracula's castle. At first Romanians had no idea what they were talking about, because Dracula had only been published in Romanian in 1990. The Ministry of Tourism set up a group to research this, and they decided that it was a tourist gold mine, and so they renovated an old castle and renamed it "Dracula's Castle", and turned it into a kind of vampire Disneyland to cash in on the tourist trade.
Their historical investigations did not turn up an original for Stoker's Count Dracula (Stoker's story was rather set in Styria, in Austria), but they did turn up a rather bloodthirsty ruler, a Prince of Wallachia (one of the three provinces of Romania, the others being Transylvania and Modldavia) whose epithet was Vlad the Impaler, and who appeared to enjoy impaling invading enemies and his own subjects on stakes. His enemies included the invading Ottoman Turks, and the neighbouring Kingdom of Hungary, and he seemed to be the the historical figure who came closest to being a model for Bram Stoker's arch-villain.
Elizabeth Kostova builds on this, and unambiguously links Dracula the vampire to the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, with three generations of historians investigating the legends by doing research in various libraries. To say more about the plot might be a spoiler, but I can say something about the way the plot is constructed.
After a hundred or so pages I became curious about the author and her background, because, in spite of the book being set in at least three different historical periods (the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s) in several different countries, I spotted no glaring anachronisms. In addition, there were references to several different periods of medieval history, and again, the settings seemed authentic.
The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Kostova notes that a very high price was paid for it
Publishers Weekly explained the high price as a bidding war between firms believing that they might have the next Da Vinci Code within their grasp. One vice-president and associate publisher said "Given the success of The Da Vinci Code, everybody around town knows how popular the combination of thriller and history can be and what a phenomenon it can become.
That was very interesting, because one outstanding feature of The da Vinci code was its bad history and worse plot, made worse still by Dan Brown's spurious claims that the historical background was accurate. It is a claim that Elizabeth Kostova could justifiably have made, but, with more modesty than Dan Brown, didn't.
I spotted just one, very minor, anachronism -- a character referred to his having grown up in Cumbria twenty years before Cumbria became an official county name -- before that a person would be more likely to have said "Cumberland", or "Westmorland", or possibly "The Lake District". There may be others, of course, but if there were they weren't so glaringly obvious as to be distracting, like the errors in The da Vinci code. The descriptions of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 seem to be pretty accurate, and are also informative.
Descriptions of life in Orthodox monasteries are also fairly accurate, as are those of of some folk-religion customs, such as fire-walking.
Bram Stoker manages to avoid this difficulty when writing about contemporary England, though his knowledge of the geography and folk-religion of the Balkans was derived entirely from books, and was sketchy, to say the least. But his story holds up in spite of that, and in spite of the plot flaws it remains a good read. Kostova manages to get in all three -- a combination of history cum thriller cum horror story that comes off well. She uses some of Stoker's techniques -- telling the story through letters written by the characters, and also uses some of the conventions that Stoker established for vampire folklore -- that vampires are afraid of crosses and garlic, for example. One of the things I do have some doubts about though, is that Kostova seems to invest Turkish worry-beads with a religious signficance analogous to Western rosaries, and therefore good for scaring of vampires. Greeks also use worry beads, but they seem to be purely secular, and quite different from the Orthodox prayer ropes that are closer to Western rosaries.
As an Orthodox Christian, this was one of the things that I found a bit unsatisfactory -- the main characters in the story were agnostic, yet the seemed to put great reliance on religious symbols like crosses for warding off vampires. This strikes me as being purely superstitious.
On the other hand, it probably does reflect the attitudes of many nominal Orthodox in Balkan countries, especially those that were deliberately secularised after several decates of atheistic communist rule.
But those are minor quibbles, and don't detract from enjoyment of the book, which is a very good read indeed.
This object appears to be a book of some sort. A fat book. With letters printed in groups that seem to be words of some sort. English words. Words inThis object appears to be a book of some sort. A fat book. With letters printed in groups that seem to be words of some sort. English words. Words in groups that appear to be sentences of some sort. Verbless sentences. Mostly.
There is a banal theme that seems to be a plot of some sort. A bad plot. A recycled plot. A plot about an idol of some sort. An evil idol. An idol that bad men want to use to destroy the world. There are several groups of bad men of some sort. They all want the idol. They all get the idol. They all die. The good guy gets the idol.
Then the bad guys get it. They die. Then the good guy gets it Then the bad guys get it. The good guy gets the girl in the end. There is a happy ending of some sort. For the survivors.
And it is undoubtedly the worst book I have ever read. It sets a new standard in badness. ...more
This is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hidThis is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hiding out in the opium dens of Hong Kong, and being brought back to solve a serial murder case -- two women have been found dead, drowned in their own blood.
I haven't read the book immediately preceding this one in the series, The snowman, which apparently explains why Harry was in Hong Kong, and perhaps one needs to read that to understand what happens in this novel, but I found it rather disappointing. The first book I read about Harry Hole, The redeemer I thought pretty good, the best of the flood of Scandinavian whodunits I'd read to date. So what was wrong with this one?
I suspect that Jo Nesbø has been influenced by the success of Stieg Larsson, and has been trying to imitate Larsson's style, and it doesn't quite come off. In most whodunits, the reader is exposed to clues as the detectives are, and has to work out the most likely suspects based on the same information, and that is part of the fun of reading whodunits. In this book, however, the reader has more knowledge than the detectives, and thus can work out the primary suspect long before they do. I won't go into the possible reasons for this, as that would probably be a spoiler.
In addition, Nesbø comes perilously close to jumping the shark by giving Harry Hole not one, but three near-death experiences. The book ends as it begins, with Harry Hole retiring to obscurity. I don't think that's a spoiler, but I do think that this time it's probably best if he stays there. ...more
A psychotherapist, Karen Wiley, receives anonymous notes written by a psychopath, or a child threatened by a psychopath. This kind of plot has almost bA psychotherapist, Karen Wiley, receives anonymous notes written by a psychopath, or a child threatened by a psychopath. This kind of plot has almost become a genre of its own, with some authers, such as Jonathan Kellerman, seeming to specialise in it. Reading the blurb and the opening chapters of this reminded me of The Analyist by John Katzenbach, which has a very similar theme. At least in this book the protagonist does not behave quite so stupidly as the one in Katzenbach's book. Both books, however, have a motif of the hidden dangers of the Internet.
It's difficult to write about such a book without including spoilers, so perhaps it's easier to write about the genre. One of the things that strikes me about the genre is that it is assumed that there is nothing remarkable about apparently normal people living apparently normal lives to have regular appointments with psychotherapists or psychoanalysts of some kind. If these books are an accurate reflection of American society, it would seem that psychotherapy has become a kind of religion, at least among the upper middle class. In America, in such circles, it seems that people would talk about "my shrink" without the slightest twinge of embarrassment, whereas in South Africa regular visits to such a functionary would be regarded as a shameful secret.
Of course in the book the normality of life is interrupted by the actions of a psychopath, but the solution isn't to be found in psychotherapy, at least not of the paid client/therapist kind. The solution requires police work, and in the story there is plenty of that, as police professionals, semi-professionals and anateurs get involved in trying to track down the psychopath, getting in each other's way and working at cross-purposes as the body count and gruesomeness rises.
But given the existence of such a genre, this book is one of the better examples. ...more
What Robert Goddard does best - a mystery in the past with repercussions in the present. In this case, the mystery of what happened to the Russian royWhat Robert Goddard does best - a mystery in the past with repercussions in the present. In this case, the mystery of what happened to the Russian royal family, and their link with Anna Anderson....more
This is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While thThis is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While there is something of a gap between the first book and the second, this one carried on right from where the second one leaves off, so if you've read the second book, don't wait too long before reading this one, because it is in effect one long book in two volumes. Leaving it too long might mean that you forget some important elements of the plot.
I also think that this one is by far the best of the three.
I won't describe it, because saying too much would probably be a spoiler for the second book if you haven't read it. I didn't learn much from it, and its nothing profound, just a good story, well told. It differs from the preceding one in that there's more police action, and a bit of courtroom drama thrown in. ...more
I seem to have been reading quite a lot of these recently. This on is the second of the "Millennium" trilogy, the fiYet another Scandiwegian whodunit!
I seem to have been reading quite a lot of these recently. This on is the second of the "Millennium" trilogy, the first being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The plots include the staff of Millennium magazine, based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Unlike most of the Swedish whodunits I've read, in this one the protagonist is not a boozy middleaged divorced or divorcing police detective with health problems and in trouble with his superiors, but is Lisbeth Salander, a young female computer hacker with antisocial attitudes.
A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers.
Jarret linked to a site, The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test, and I had a look at it and started doing the test for my own fictional characters. They seemed very remote from being Mary Sues, and hardly any of the criteria applied to them even slightly. Perhaps that's because I've always believed what G.K. Chesterton said about fairy tales -- fairy tales are not about extraordinary people, but about extraordinary thing happening to ordinary people.
But the further I went into the test, the more it seemed to apply to Lisbeth Salander. Could she be a Mary Sue?
I have to admit that for the first 100 pages or so I was tempted to abandon the book, mainly because my wife had just finished one that I wanted to read more. But I stuck with it, and the pace picked up, especially after page 200 or so (there are 569 pages) and in the end I would say that it was a good read, though I still have mo reservations and some of the other characters.
Perhaps some of the flaws in the book can be attributed to the fact that all three books in the trilogy are being published posthumously, and so are in a semi-raw state. A good fiction editor might have pointed out some of the flaws in the characters, for the author to revise. But with the author being dead, no one really can revise them any more. ...more