14 09 2019

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

Obsessed by creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life by electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear.

The result of a compact (when Mary Shelley was just nineteen years old) between Mary, her husband Percy and Lord Byron one stormy night to write their own haunting stories, Frankenstein remains essential reading today. Influenced by the myth of Prometheus and Milton’s Paradise Lost, this chilling gothic tale would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and continues to be a devastatingly relevant exploration of the limits of human creativity.


Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece really is an outstanding novel. Having only just read it for the first time (goodness knows why I never had before) I realised how narrow and limited the popular version of the story is. It really is a wide-ranging, compelling, subtle, philosophical and quite moving narrative.



Philosophical crime capers

7 09 2019

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith


Amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher who also uses her training to solve unusual mysteries. Isabel is Editor of the Review of Applied Ethics – which addresses such questions as ‘Truth telling in sexual relationships’ – and she also hosts The Sunday Philosophy Club at her house in Edinburgh. Behind the city’s Georgian facades its moral compasses are spinning with greed, dishonesty and murderous intent. Instinct tells Isabel that the young man who tumbled to his death in front of her eyes at a concert in the Usher Hall didn’t fall. He was pushed.

With Isabel Dalhousie Alexander McCall Smith introduces a new and pneumatic female sleuth to tackle murder, mayhem – and the mysteries of life. As her hero WH Auden maintained, classic detective fiction stems from a desire for an uncorrupted Eden which the detective, as an agent of God, can return to us. But then Isabel, being a philosopher, has a thing or two to say about God as well.

All good clean fun as ever (apart from the death, obviously) from McCall Smith who really has comfortable middle class Edinburgh completely sewn up. Add in some philosophy and cosy-ish crime and then you’ve got the perfect combination.

Enjoyable stuff.


Not so normal

31 08 2019

Normal People by Sally Rooney



Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins. Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.


An easy enough read but difficult to see why all the fuss and those superlatives on the front cover. It was alright, I suppose, but am struggling now, just a few months since reading it, to recall anything of real interest.

Our man in Panama

24 08 2019

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carre


Charmer, fabulist and tailor to Panama’s rich and powerful, Harry Pendel loves to tell stories. But when the British spy Andrew Osnard – a man of large appetites, for women, information and above all money – walks into his shop, Harry’s fantastical inventions take on a life of their own. Soon he finds himself out of his depth in an international game he can never hope to win.

Le Carré’s savage satire on the espionage trade is set in a corrupt universe without heroes or honour, where the innocent are collateral damage and treachery plays out as tragic farce.

It’s a slow starter but does eventually pick up. Whilst the politics and the espionage is pretty diverting it is difficult to feel anything for any of the characters. Not bad but not one of his best.

Dear diary

17 08 2019

Theft by Finding- Diaries Volume One by David Sedaris



The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?

For nearly four decades, David Sedaris has faithfully kept a diary in which he records his thoughts and observations on the odd and funny events he witnesses. Anyone who has attended a live Sedaris event knows that his diary readings are often among the most joyful parts of the evening. But never before have they been available in print. Now, inTheft by Finding, Sedaris brings us his favorite entries. From the family home in Ralegh, North Carolina, we follow Sedaris as he sets out to make his way in the world. As an art student and then teacher in Chicago he works at a succession of very odd jobs, meeting even odder people, before moving to New York to pursue a career as a writer – where instead he very quickly lands a job in Macy’s department store as an elf in Santaland…


As with the two other books of his I’ve read, Calypso and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, there is so much rich detail in here to enjoy. He has been described as an American Alan Bennett and you can understand why with the dry, droll, gentle and often hilarious observations and commentaries Sedaris offers here. Perhaps best consumed in small doses to avoid overloading but highly recommended.

four stars

Mr Rock & Roll

10 08 2019

Espedair Street by Iain Banks


Daniel Weir used to be a famous – not to say infamous – rock star. Maybe still is. At thirty-one he has been both a brilliant failure and a dull success. He’s made a lot of mistakes that have paid off and a lot of smart moves he’ll regret forever (however long that turns out to be). Daniel Weir has gone from rags to riches and back, and managed to hold onto them both, though not much else. His friends all seem to be dead, fed up with him or just disgusted – and who can blame them? And now Daniel Weir is all alone. As he contemplates his life, Daniel realises he only has two problems: the past and the future. He knows how bad the past has been. But the future – well, the future is something else.

I was reminded of this when reading the much newer Daisy Jones and the Six recently and felt obliged to revisit. The fictional music (auto)biography is a pretty niche genre but I don’t think there can be much which can top this classic from Iain Banks. All the rock cliches are in there but Dan Weir’s ups and downs feel completely convincing. As with Daisy Jones, the fictional lyrics don’t really work (although I vaguely recall that Banks did end up recording them) but this is nevertheless a cracking read.

Still miss Iain Banks…



More than Middling

3 08 2019

Middle England by Jonathan Coe


Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical teenage daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed new career in middle age, and his father Colin, whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum. And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.

Dealing with contemporary and ongoing events in a novel can be challenging (see this recent review of a largely unsuccessful effort) but Coe manages it here with some style. This is the third novel in the rather extended series of The Rotters’ Club (excellent) and The Closed Circle (much less impressive) and really represents a terrific conclusion to the trilogy (if indeed it turns out to be the final one).

The older and wiser (well, a little perhaps) characters have lost none of their original force and the dealings with their various parents and offspring are really well represented. All of the goings on are extremely smartly represented against the pre- and post-referendum backdrop which fuels much of the debate.

A really great read and a delight to be reunited with Benjamin and friends.

four stars

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