Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of MykonoA readable and exciting whodunit.
Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of Mykonos in the Aegean, from investigating murders to being a nursemaid to tourists is not an exciting prospect. But soon there is a report of a dead body, found in the crypt of a rural church, apparently of a young woman. The case becomes more urgent when another young woman, a tourist, disappears, and it appears that the police on Mykonos have a serial killer to look for.
But there are political complications. The mayor of Mykonos does not want the news to leak out -- nothing must be allowed to frighten away the tourists on whom Mykonos's prosperity depends, When the police start to trace the movements of the murdered girl, and those who last saw her alive, there seem to be too many suspects, and at a crucial point in the investigation, most of the suspects disappear without trace.
There are a few plot holes and discrepancies in the story, but none of them serious enough to get in the way of enjoying a good read, if you like crime fiction. ...more
This is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is farThis is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.
Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book -- the use of the word "teenager", is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.
As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence -- part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.
The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine's visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe's may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian's eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.
It's a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.
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
When I started reading this book I didn't think I'd like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. BuWhen I started reading this book I didn't think I'd like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. But it seemed to improve as it went along, and in the end I rather enjoyed it.
In a way it reminded me of The de Vinci Code in that the characters go running around in search of a myterious artifact, pursued by shadow villains, with secret ciphers that need to be solved. But The book of air ans shadows seems to be better written, and the plot holes are not quite so crass and annoying.
I suppose one of the reasons I found The da Vinci code annoying is that history is my subject, and that book was based on obviously bogus history. In The book of air and shadows the plot revolves around accidentally discovered ancient documents that seem to point to a hitherto unknown play of Shakespeare which might be found if only the coded letters can be deciphered. Perhaps the difference is that I know more about history than I do about Shakespeare and dramatic art generally. I mean I've read some of Shakespeare's plays and seen some of them performed on stage and screen and found them enjoyable enough but truth to tell I found author Samuel Beckett]'s Waiting for Godot or Jean Genet's The Balcony just as enjoyable, if not more so. No doubt this will mark me as a Philistine among the true devotees of Shakespeare, but I'm just saying that this is why my bullshite detectors were more sensitive to The da Vinci code, and if there was similar nonsense in this book, I was less able to detect it.
But The da Vinci code was simply ludicrous. A character who was supposed to be an expert cryptographer could not detect simple mirror writing, and they went on puzzling about it for several pages while the reader is urging them not to be so thick and just get on with it. In The book of air and shadows, by contrast just about every character has a go at deciphering the coded letters, and somehow manage to solve the puzzle with ridiculous ease.
Though there are plot holes, they are not quite as annoying as in some other books, and it is generally better written, and there are some occasional quite astute observations.
There are two main characters: a rich intellectual property lawyer, Jake Mishkin, and a poor book shop assistant, Albert Crosetti, who dreams of being a film director. They only meet about halfway through the book, and the lawyer's story is told in the first person, while the film fan's is told in the third person. At one point after they have met they are discussing movies and life, and Mishkin is interested in Crosetti's view that movies really determine our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what is real.
'surely not,' Mishkin objected. 'Surely it's the other way around -- filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.'
'No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street of a Western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It's the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real Old West. They were heavy and expensive and no one but an idiot would wear one in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional Western gunslingers. And it's not just thugs. Movies shape everyone's reality, to the extent that it's shaped by human action -- foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it's movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We've all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment whem resistance turns to passion. He's seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.'
We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this famiWe first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title "Blood Royal", is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.
So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I've covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.
Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, "Hauptmann Schottland". Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.
I've read several of Lawrence G. Green's books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours -- stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn't focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.
As I said at the beginning, some of Green's stories, like the "Blood Royal" one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.
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
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
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 enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatI enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed "beatniks" by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac's novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.
The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being "cool" and "hip", and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.
As Jack Kerouac's character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road... to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet's uncle, and try to live up to Jack's impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.
To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.
The basic problemm, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of "coolness" is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.
I don't think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn't hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg's poem Howl.
I rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword wasI rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was written by Elizabeth George, whose crime novels also feature an aristocratic detective and his love life.
In this story the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, has married Harriet Vane, and their honeymoon is complicated by the discovery of the corpse of the previous owner.
I've read a couple of other whodunits by Dorothy Sayers, and while I've enjoyed them, I would not say that they are the best detective fiction I have read. Sayers is sometimes linked with the informal literary group the Inklings, and though not actually a member, she was a friend of some of the members, and they sometimes read her work at meetings.
When I read Sayers's novels, I am very conscious of the period they are set in, and in which they were written, and so I'm very conscious of it being another age, almost another world. It is the world of Downton Abbey. Indeed, perhaps seeing Downton Abbey enables one to appreciate her stories more.
But contrast, when reading books by Inklings Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis I'm not so conscious of the period in which they are set. Though Lewis's descriptions of Mars and Venus are nothing like what we now know them to be, one can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. And even though Williams's novels are set on earth, there is nothing quite as dated as the descriptions in Sayers, perhaps because she gives more details of everyday life -- characters smoking, ordering food, taking care of wine and the like.
There's also a lot of erudite literary wordplay between the amateur and the professional detective, which is a bit spoilt by the slightly patronising tone. If course back then being patronising was regarded as a good thing, noblesse oblige and all that. But there's another thing -- the characters keep breaking into French, with no hint of a translation. I suppose back then educated Englishmen (of both sexes) could be expected to converse freely, if not fluently in French, but that too just makes one aware of how much times have changed. ...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
An awaiting trial prisoner reads a book written by an ex-World War 1 soldier. The prisoner is apparently facing a charge of being an accomplice in kidAn awaiting trial prisoner reads a book written by an ex-World War 1 soldier. The prisoner is apparently facing a charge of being an accomplice in kidnapping and murder in Leicestershire, while the soldier makes notes for his book while travelling around the same general area visiting his war-time companions, but the events of his journeys are mainly revealed in letters to his father, which the prisoner has apparently not read.
Both the ex-soldier and the prisoner have witnessed scenes of death, and meet with psychotherapists, and both end up wandering around the Leicestershire countryside in apparent fits of madness. It is difficult to make any kind of sense of this, but that seems to be the point, as it made very l;ittle sense to the protagonists. In spite of the apparent pointlessness, it made compelling reading, even though in the end one is left wondering what exactly has happened.
It also left me wondering what has happened to book editors.
I think I would be reluctant to write historical novels, especially novels that contain, as this one does, texts purported to date from a different period. In this case, the letters of the ex-soldier to his father are dated in the early 1920s, and yet they use some anachronistic expressions that I think may not have been used then. Referring to the young soldiers who fought in the First World War as "teenagers" seems out of place. Perhaps they did, but I'm sure that people of that period would have been more likely to refer to them as "boys" or possibly "youths". I thought "teenager" only came into widespread use in the 1940s of 1950s. Similarly, I do not think people of that period would have been familiar with the 1970s malapropism "parameters", or with the misuse of "sojourn" apparently popularised by Stephen Donaldson's "Thomas Covenant" books. I thought it was only in the last 20 years or so that people have begun to use "proven" instead of "proved" as the regular past tense of "prove" -- before that I understood it as a technical term of Scottish law, found in the verdict of "not proven".
But perhaps this anachronism is all part of the book's topsy-turvy timeline, in which the personalities of the protagonists from two different periods seem to merge.
Occasionally one comes across a book by pure serendipity, and this is such a book. My wife picked it up in the library, just to see what it was like,Occasionally one comes across a book by pure serendipity, and this is such a book. My wife picked it up in the library, just to see what it was like, and when she had finished reading it she passed it on to me.
It is set in a village called Jadowia in Poland just after the fall of communism, and in a way is a kind of biography of a village. It is a time of transition, and so people are caught between two worlds, one of their recent history, and a new world that is coming. But the change and lifting of restrictions makes at least some of the people in the village aware of an older history, of things that had been suppressed, and had faded from consciousness -- that in the past people had lived there who were no longer there, that the Jews had simply vanished, and were no longer mentioned.
In some ways the story is almost familiar, because though I have never been to Poland, South Africa was going through a similar transition in the same period, between 1990 and 1994. I also visited other countries that were undergoing similar transitions -- Russia, Bulgaria and Albania. Part of the attraction of such a story is that it has some familiar echoes.
The story starts off quite slowly, and at first it is not clear where it is going, and it picks up as it goes along when the author gets into his stride. Amd then it gets quite lyrical, with what I thought were inspired descriptions, that captured the atmosphere of of time and place. Here, for example, is a description of two of the main characters, from neighbouring farms, going to the nearest town to try to get a battery for an old lamp. They walk down a street where street vendors are selling an amazing variety of goods
This spray of color, this wonderland of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite trash, things that you didn't want but might use, things that you might buy and take home and offer as a present, a toy, a novelty, a small bright newness. Powierza stopped, fingered a pile of plastic knit gloves, and chose a pair for his wife, borrowing bills from me to pay for them. He folded them into his pocket and walked on, pausing in front of a store window offering pornographic videotapes from Germany and Holland, along with a display of electric can openers and kitchen mixers. Powierza ducked inside, received a curt response to his inquiry about a battery for the flashlight, then lingered to look at the illustrations on the videocassettes, ripe thighs tantalizingly imprisoned behind locked glass doors.
How very 1990s. How very Eastern Europe.
As I read it I had a vivid image of a lantern my father used to own, which took a battery like the one described in the book, a square cardboard-covered one. It had a big reflector on the side, for throwing a powerful focused beam, and a smaller inspection lamp on top, with a hemispherical glass cover, and a wire grill, to protect it, presumably, from dropped spanners. I haven't seen it for 60 years, but the book brought back a clear memory of it.
All this made me wonder about the author, Charles T. Powers. How did he know all this stuff? Was he Polish? Had he lived in Poland? Had he written any other books? It turned out that he was an American journalist who had once been stationed in Poland, and that this is his only published novel. So there are no more books like this, no more where this one came from. This book is unique, and so is a uniquely good read.
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
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
Since this is a collection of novels, I'll comment on each one separately as I read it, on my Khanya blog, and when I've done with all of them may addSince this is a collection of novels, I'll comment on each one separately as I read it, on my Khanya blog, and when I've done with all of them may add some comments on the collected works here. I begin with Burmese Days, because that was the first one in the collection that I hadn't read.
The next one in the series is A clergyman's daughter, to which I give only three stars. Not that it's a bad book, but it has some faults that I didn't see in Burmese Days.
Coming up for Air is a strange book. I was determined not to like it, and yet I felt compelled to finish it, though couldn't stand to read much more than a chapter a day; a page-turner it wasn't. It's about a fat middle-aged salesman living a dull middle-class life in a dull London suburb, who goes out to get his new set of false teeth. On thje way he sees a poster about King Zog's wedding, and that sets him off reminscing about his childhood in a small town in Oxfordshire. One expects the memories to last for a chapter or two, but they go on and on and on.
This book is different from most novels. It's about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it saThis book is different from most novels. It's about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it says little about their external circumstances. It is told entirely from the viewpoints of the people concerned, and is an internal description of how their friends and life affect them.
Describing it like that, it doesn't sound like much of a story. Seeing the world through six pairs of eyes, moving from one viewpoint to the other, sounds as though it will be like living in six separate boxes, but it isn't. It is a marvellous evocation of friendship. The trouble is that it is so evocative that my mind kept wandering, every paragraph at least, if not every sentence. When it describes the feelings of one character when leaving school, I was taken back to when I left school, aznd got so absorbed in the vivid recollection that I must have remained stuck on the same page for about 20 minutes or so,
It was the the same with the description of their leaving university, and I was taken back 46 years (gosh, was it as long ago as that) when I took the train from Grahamstown to Alicedale, and waited on Alicedale station for the train to Johannesburg, and the realisation suddenly struck me that I would never be a full-time student again. I hadn't been a student all the time before, but even working for two years full time I was still saving up to go to university, and suddenly it was all over. And Virginia Woolf captures that "it's all over" feeling brilliantly. To one character it's a drop of water gathering and growing, and then suddenly it drops, and life changes, irrevocably.
But at the same time there is a continuity. As the characters move from youth to age, so there are interludes describing, quite impersonally, the course of a day, the sun rising and setting over the sea shore, with the waves continuing to crash down, so there is also a repetition, and it reminded me of the verse of Psalm 41/42:
Deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar; all your waves, your breakers have rolled over me.
Actually there is a seventh friend, Percival, who was at school with the boys. We hear of his unrequited love for Susan, and Neville's unrequited love for him, and he goes to India and is killed in a fall from a horse. But his viewpoint never appears, he is seen only only through the eyes of the others, and the effects of his life and death on them. ...more
A middle-aged suburban housewife, trapped in a marriage that has lost its lustre, meets a friend she had known as a teenager in a sugar mill town on tA middle-aged suburban housewife, trapped in a marriage that has lost its lustre, meets a friend she had known as a teenager in a sugar mill town on the Natal coast, where she had gone to stay with her sister and brother-in-law after her father had died. Her friend has become a writer, and encourages her to write the story of the long-ago summer when they first met, which had begun with new friendships, her first love, and yet ended in horror, violence and death. Though the book is full of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, it is also an enthralling story about growing up in the 1950s, with teenage fears and anxieties, joys and embarassments....more
If the background is accurate, and there is no reason to suppose that it isn't, it perhaps serves as an introdCases and anecdotes of a London lawyer.
If the background is accurate, and there is no reason to suppose that it isn't, it perhaps serves as an introduction to the British legal system and its terminology, in criminal law at least. It is clearly meant to be lighhearted and humourous, but a lot of the jokes fall flat, and there is a lot of repetition that grows tiresome after a while. I kept falling asleep while I was reading it, but I don't suppose I missed much. ...more