Doubly troubling

2 11 2019

The Double by Jose Saramago


What happens when Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a 38-year-old professor of history, discovers that there is a man living in the same city who is identical to him on every physical detail, but not related by blood at all. And what happens when each of these men attempt to investigate each other’s lives? How do we know who we are? What do we mean by identity? What defines us as individual, unique people? Could we ever come to terms with the existence of another person with our voice, our features, our everything, down to the smallest distinguishing mark? Could we change places with our double without those closest to us noticing?

When Tertuliano Maximo Afonso watches a rented video, recommended by a colleague, he is shocked to discover that one of the actors is identical to him. His mission to locate his double begins an extraordinary series of events that soon gets out of control.  It’s a dark and amusing novel which raises all sorts of entertaining existential questions in a rather Borgesian vein. Recommended.



four stars

An even darker dystopia

27 10 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.

I read this when it was first published all those years ago and hugely enjoyed it then. It felt then like a hugely creative, extraordinary and far-fetched dark dystopian creation. If anything it now feels almost prescient, as if we are half way on the journey to Gilead, making it highly topical as well as hauntingly insightful. Having read it again, I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Into the Valley

19 10 2019

Valley of Decision by Stanley Middleton


Mary and David Blackwell are content in their marriage but when Mary, a talented opera singer, is offered the chance to sing in America, everything changes. David, a music teacher and amateur cellist, is left behind in England and, when he suddenly stops hearing from her, he must decide how to carry on and what to do.

It’s a really simple premise and on the surface looks like a straightforward and rather ordinary domestic tale but it is one which gets under the skin of relationships in a quite remarkable and moving way. Middleton has been out of fashion for some time and it is great to see his books available again. Especially in a year of joint Booker prize winners – Middleton shared the prize with Nadine Gordimer back in 1974.

Highly recommended, as are his others, An After Dinner’s Sleep and Entry into Jerusalem.


four stars

Spies like us

12 10 2019

Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers



One of the first great spy novels, The Riddle of the Sands is set during the long, suspicious years leading up to the First World War. In spite of good prospects in the Foreign Office, sardonic civil servant Carruthers is finding it hard to endure the boredom of his life in London. He accepts an invitation from a college friend, Davies, a shyly intrepid yachtsman, and joins him on a sailing holiday in the Baltic, and there, amidst the sunshine and bright blue seas, they discover a German plot to invade England . . .

Like much contemporary British spy fiction, The Riddle of the Sands reflects the Anglo-German rivalry of the early twentieth century, and the intricacy of the book’s conception and its lucid detail make it a classic of its genre.

It’s certainly an original story and pretty gripping throughout with some nice twists and turns. Following the mapping of the coastal routes was a challenge (although to be fair, probably not as hard as in real life) and overall there was possibly just too much in the way of nautical detail which was a bit distracting.

Worth a read though.




To Russia with Love

5 10 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy



Anna Karenina seems to have everything – beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike and soon brings jealously and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.


Can’t believe I’ve never got round to this genuine classic before. So glad I did. I debated about which translation to go with and this one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky flows wonderfully and feels full, rich and perfectly pitched.

Tolstoy manages to ensure the inner lives of the characters are represented in remarkable detail and all the main players are quite compelling. And so much seems to be going on in the descriptions of eyes too.

I also liked this reference to the ‘university question’:

The university question was a very important event in Moscow that winter. Three old professors on the council had not accepted the opinion of the young ones; the young ones had proposed a separate opinion. That opinion, in the view of some, was terrible, and, in the view of others, was very simple and correct, and so the professors had split into two parties. Some, including Katavasov, saw falsity, denunciation and deceit in the opposing side; the others – puerility and disrespect for authority. Levin, though he did not belong to the university, had already heard and talked about this matter several times since coming to Moscow and had formed his own opinion about it. He took part in the conversation, which continued outside as the three men walked to the old university building.

All just brilliant.


Thrills, spills and pills

28 09 2019

The Thrill of it All by Joseph O’Connor

At college in 1980s Luton, Robbie Goulding, an Irish-born teenager, meets the elusive Fran Mulvey, an orphaned Vietnamese refugee. Together they form a band. Joined by cellist Sarah-Thérèse Sherlock and her twin brother Seán on drums, The Ships in the Night set out to chase fame. But the story of this makeshift family is haunted by ghosts from the past.

Spanning 25 years, The Thrill of it All rewinds and fast-forwards through an evocative soundtrack of struggle and laughter. Infused with blues, ska, classic showtunes, New Wave and punk, using interviews, lyrics, memoirs and diaries, the tale stretches from suburban England to Manhattan’s East Village, from Thatcher-era London to the Hollywood Bowl, from the meadows of the Glastonbury Festival to a wintry Long Island, culminating in a Dublin evening in July 2012, a night that changes everything.

A story of loyalties, friendship, the call of the muse, and the beguiling shimmer of teenage dreams, this is a warm-hearted, funny and deeply moving novel for anyone that’s ever loved a song.

Very good novel indeed from an outstanding writer. Following very much in the footsteps of Espedair Street and, more recently, Daisy Jones and the Six this really is a highly entertaining, very credible and immensely readable fictional rock biography. As with other similar offerings there is something about fictionalised music and lyrics which remains (to me, at least) largely unconvincing but this doesn’t detract from what is a highly recommended read. And the author only name checks his (very real) sister Sinead two or three times…





Left overs – the briefest of brief book reviews

21 09 2019

All the ones from recent years I failed to review. Until now.

In completist mode we have all the books I’ve read over the past few years which, for one reason or another, I failed to review, even briefly. Just the briefest of comments on each, which does no real justice to anything.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell – Evocative classic four stars

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – one from a few years back in which Rebus is back (again)

Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom – Haunting wartime tale four stars

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris – Very poor indeed 

A kind of loving by Stan Barstow – It’s tough up North

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – Best/worst of times

What’s Left? by Nick Cohen – Insightful and dispiriting critique four stars

Where the Bodies are Buried by Chris Brookmyre – new PI does good

Persuasion by Jane Austen – Rereading my fave Austen

The Lewis Trilogy: The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen by Peter May – Death in the Western Isle

Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith – an entertaining mix of overlapping tales as Scotland Street comes to Pimlico

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie – a classic Christie in which a man dies for a crime he didn’t commit and then gets turned into a BBC mini-series

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrente – Richly portrayed Neopolitan friendship and life

The Thirst by Jo Nesbo – another gripping outing (the eleventh) for everyone’s favourite flawed and reluctant Scandinavian detective

You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane – Entertaining and intelligent non-romcom romcom

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson – Time travelling fun and games

A Murder of Quality by John le Carre – Smiley and the murder mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Murder. On a nice train. But whodunnit?

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie – Another classic Poirot murder mystery

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie – Poirot again. Another murder. On another train.  

Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten – Swedish crime noir

The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser – another dark Swedish crime thriller

Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen – Cold case Scandi noir 

Blind Sighted by Karin Slaughter – Slaughter delivers some slaughter

Oliver VII by Anton Szerb – Bizarre and paradoxical tale four stars

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Icelandic crime complexity

Jaggy Splinters by Christopher Brookmyre – entirely typical short story collection

God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson – Bit of a mixed bag –

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – I pined a lot 

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith – another Scotland street gem to add to the collection

Crows, Papua New Guinea, and Boats by David Thorne – Should be funnier

Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell – Worse than TCOG Better

Anyway, this is really just for my benefit so no arguing.



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