Another Brick in the Wall

27 06 2020

The Wall by John Lanchester

 

Kavanagh begins his time patrolling the Wall.

If he’s lucky, if nothing goes wrong, he only has to do two years of this. 729 more nights.

The best thing that can happen is that he survives and gets off the Wall and will never have to spend another day of his life anywhere near it.

But what if something did happen – if the Others came, if he had to fight for his life?

Thrilling and heartbreaking, The Wall is about a troubled world you will recognise as your own – and about what might be found when all is lost.

 

I didn’t think I really wanted to read another dystopian novel but this is an excellent tale with a great premise and really well written. It starts on the wall but then moves on but things remain pretty dark and precarious for Kavanagh throughout. Gripping and well worth a read.

 

four stars

 





Never Mind the Balkans

13 06 2020

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

The Great Fortune: The Balkan Trilogy 1

Bucharest, Autumn 1939: newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle arrive in a city alive with contrasts and rumour, on edge with wavering loyalties and the tension of war. Guy, teaching at the university, throws himself into Bucharest life, embracing all around him. Harriet, struggling to adjust to married life and to her husband’s friendship with the over-attentive Sophie, finds life in a city cut off from the outside world less straightforward than she first anticipated.

 

The Spoilt City: The Balkan Trilogy 2

 

It is 1940, and Guy and Harriet Pringle and their friends in the English colony in Bucharest find their position growing ever more precarious. The ‘phoney war’ is over and invasion by the Germans is an ever-present threat.

Harriet finds her new husband’s idealism clashing with her own more down-to-earth attitudes, his generosity to all comers frustrating her attempts to survive in a city of shortages. Their easy life among Bucharest’s café society is gradually eroded as rumours become reality, and the Germans march in.

The Spoilt City is a dramatic and colourful portrait of a city in turmoil – and a sharply perceptive portrait of a young couple struggling to make their marriage work in the face of adversity.

 

 

Friends And Heroes: The Balkan Trilogy 3

Harriet Pringle is newly arrived in Athens. Having fled Nazi-occupied Rumania, she anxiously awaits news of her husband Guy, trapped in the spoilt city of Bucharest.

When the young couple are reunited, in the sunlight of a capital still at peace, they have little idea of the problems still to come. Greece is invaded by the Italians and work is scarce; hardly the best time for a marriage to flourish. Guy, as ever, is engrossed in his work and the problems of others, and when Harriet is diverted by a handsome young officer, their marriage seems doomed.

But when Greece is defeated, and as Europe disintegrates around them, Guy and Harriet are forced to find a new strength in a crumbling world of turmoil.

 

A brilliant trilogy from start to finish. The descriptions of Bucharest and Athens in the shadow of war are compelling and the Pringles are a wonderfully depicted central duo. The cast of supporting characters – from Toby Lush to Lord Pinkrose to the extraordinary Prince Yakimov – are fantastically well drawn too. Anthony Burgess described Fortunes of War as “the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer” and that pretty much sums it up.

And some of it is very funny. I particularly liked this passage

 

Am yet to see the BBC series though:

 

But it’s meant to be very good too.

Anyway, 900 plus pages of terrific stuff – couldn’t recommend more highly.





Greece is the word

30 05 2020

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

When Pete’s parents moved from Cyprus to Birmingham in the 1960s in the hope of a better life, they had no money and only a little bit of English. They opened a fish-and-chip shop in Acocks Green. The Great Western Fish Bar is where Pete learned about coin-operated machines, male banter and Britishness.

Shy and introverted, Pete stopped speaking from age 4 to 7, and found refuge instead in the bittersweet embrace of pop songs, thanks to Top of the Pops and Dial-A-Disc. From Brotherhood of Man to UB40, from ABBA to The Police, music provided the safety net he needed to protect him from the tensions of his home life. It also helped him navigate his way around the challenges surrounding school, friendships and phobias such as visits to the barber, standing near tall buildings and Rod Hull and Emu.

With every passing year, his guilty secret became more horrifying to him: his parents were Greek, but all the things that excited him were British. And the engine of that realisation? ‘Sugar Baby Love’, ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, ‘Tragedy’, ‘Silly Games’, ‘Going Underground’, ‘Come On Eileen’, and every other irresistibly thrilling chart hit blaring out of the chip shop radio.

Never have the trials and tribulations of growing up and the human need for a sense of belonging been so heart-breakingly and humorously depicted.

It’s a genuinely lovely, warm and charming memoir with some really delightful stories about growing up in Birmingham in the 70s and 80s. The consistent theme of growing through chart music is the thread which runs through the book and almost every song brought back memories for me, even though I am a wee bit older (just a slightly later musical developer).

A brief extract from the full playlist (you can find it on Spotify) gives a flavour of what we are dealing with here:

Every one a classic. And with the huge musical knowledge and experience of age his analysis of these songs in hindsight is really something special. Particularly enjoyable and poignant though is his encounter with his then musical comedy heroes, the Barron Knights.

The other connection for me was the setting – Acocks Green was where my Mum spent many years post-War and where her adoptive parents lived until they passed away some years ago and I remember visiting during the 70s (although no recollection of the Great Western Fish Bar, sadly). Music, identity and genuine honesty make it a really entertaining and pretty heart-warming read.

Given that the landmark event which concludes the book is in 1982, there is plenty of scope for a sequel.

 

four stars





Lover’s lament

23 05 2020

Lamentation by C J Sansom

England, 1546: King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors are engaged in a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government of Henry’s successor, eight-year-old Prince Edward. As heretics are hunted across London, and the radical Protestant Anne Askew is burned at the stake, the Catholic party focus their attack on Henry’s sixth wife, Matthew Shardlake’s old mentor, Queen Catherine Parr.

Shardlake, still haunted by events aboard the warship Mary Rose the year before, is working on the Cotterstoke Will case, a savage dispute between rival siblings. Then, unexpectedly, he is summoned to Whitehall Palace and asked for help by his old patron, the now beleaguered and desperate Queen.

For Catherine Parr has a secret. She has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, so radically Protestant that if it came to the King’s attention it could bring both her and her sympathizers crashing down. But, although the book was kept secret and hidden inside a locked chest in the Queen’s private chamber, it has – inexplicably – vanished. Only one page has been found, clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer.

Shardlake’s investigations take him on a trail that begins among the backstreet printshops of London but leads him and Jack Barak into the dark and labyrinthine world of the politics of the royal court; a world he had sworn never to enter again. Loyalty to the Queen will drive him into a swirl of intrigue inside Whitehall Palace, where Catholic enemies and Protestant friends can be equally dangerous, and the political opportunists, who will follow the wind wherever it blows, more dangerous than either.

The theft of Queen Catherine’s book proves to be connected to the terrible death of Anne Askew, while his involvement with the Cotterstoke litigants threatens to bring Shardlake himself to the stake.

Another cracking yarn in the Shardlake series featuring a typical range of entertaining elements from power battles around the dying king to a torturous trail in search of a missing book. As usual it’s a fast-paced and thought-provoking tale which keeps going right to the end. Already looking forward to the next one.

four stars





Keeping it Session

16 05 2020

The Holy Vible by Elis James and John Robins

 

 

Now, The Elis James and John Robins’ Show has become cult listening, and that cult has registered for charitable status, published quarterly accounts and been given a full blessing by the Archbishop of Broadcasting. It’s official: Elis and John are a religion, and this book is their Holy Vible.

Have you ever failed to Keep It Session? Is your new flatmate a complete coin? Have you ever eaten Space Raiders on the toilet and written ‘Grief Is Living’ in your journal? Then this book is for you. If not, don’t worry, it won’t be long before you’re making up games, looking at Freddie, or facing your own personal farthing-gate.

Our obsessions make us what we are, and though you may never have addressed a will to Brian May or cried watching Ronnie O’ Sullivan make a 147, you’ll have done something similar, and Elis and John are here to tell you that you’re not weird, so come on in, and taste the vibe! Or should I say, READ the vibe!

 

I’m a bit outside the target demographic and a relatively recent fan but do hugely enjoy the James and Robins radio show and the additional podcasts, the Isolation Tapes. An A to Z is always a bit of a tough structure for delivering consistent humour but there is much to like in here from the full and clear explanation of the importance of Keeping it Session to the joys of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynki and the radio show favourites of Made up Games and John’s Shame Well. Despite the frequent Queen references and the unevenness of some of the back and forth writing (helpfully in different fonts) this is enjoyable and entertaining and probably a must read for anyone who enjoys the show.





Right at the heart of the matter

9 05 2020

Heartstone by C J Sansom

 

England, 1545: England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. As the English fleet gathers at Portsmouth, the country raises the largest militia army it has ever seen. The King has debased the currency to pay for the war, and England is in the grip of soaring inflation and economic crisis.

Meanwhile Matthew Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of “monstrous wrongs” committed against a young ward of the court, which have already involved one mysterious death, Shardlake and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth.

Once arrived, Shardlake and Barak find themselves in a city preparing to become a war zone; and Shardlake takes the opportunity to also investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettiplace, a young woman incarcerated in the Bedlam. The emerging mysteries around the young ward, and the events that destroyed Ellen’s family nineteen years before, involve Shardlake in reunions both with an old friend and an old enemy close to the throne. Events will converge on board one of the King’s great warships, primed for battle in Portsmouth harbour . . .

This story follows a short period after Revelation, reviewed here very recently, and is another fairly gripping tale, the fifth in the series which this time sees Shardlake heading into the heart of the matter as he is caught up in war preparations on the way to Portsmouth. Once there he finds himself in the most frightening of situations on board the King’s warship. There are many other sub-plots to keep matters interesting along the way but, despite its length, this is a pretty compelling yarn from start to finish. This is possibly the best so far and luckily there are a few more to enjoy too…

 





It’s a revelation

2 05 2020

Revelation by C J Sansom

England, 1543: King Henry VIII is wooing Lady Catherine Parr, whom he wants for his sixth wife. But this time the object of his affections is resisting. Archbishop Cranmer and the embattled Protestant faction at court are watching keenly, for Lady Catherine is known to have reformist sympathies.

Matthew Shardlake, meanwhile, is working on the case of a teenage boy, a religious maniac locked in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. Should he be released to his parents, when his terrifying actions could lead to him being burned as a heretic?

When an old friend is horrifically murdered Shardlake promises his widow, for whom he has long had complicated feelings, to bring the killer to justice. His search leads him to both Cranmer and Catherine Parr –and with the dark prophecies of the Book of Revelation.

As London’s Bishop Bonner prepares a purge of Protestants, Shardlake, together with his assistant, Jack Barak, and his friend, Guy Malton, follows the trail of a series of horrific murders that shake them to the core, and which are already bringing frenzied talk of witchcraft and a demonic possession – for what else would the Tudor mind make of a serial killer . . .?

Very much in the ‘if you like Wolf Hall you’ll love this’ series of online book recommendations. But this, the fourth in the series starring the erudite and somewhat improbably well-connected lawyer Matthew Shardlake, shows that it is really a bit different. There’s a bit more blood and guts and down and dirty about it and the fun and games are really getting going in this one. Plenty of twists and sub-plots keep things moving along and the historical backdrop is richly drawn making it a really good read (whether or not you like Wolf Hall which, of course, you do).





Whiskey in the jar

25 04 2020

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

In the world of Graham Greene’s 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, it’s a bad time to be a Catholic. The book’s hero is an unnamed priest on the run from Mexican authorities after a state governor has ordered the military to dismantle all vestiges of the religion. Churches are burned. Relics, medals, and crosses are banned. The price for disobedience is death. While many clerics give up their beliefs and accept their government pensions, the unnamed priest travels in secret, celebrating Mass and hearing confessions under the cover of night. Yet he’s also a gluttonous, stubborn, and angry man drowning in vices, and the religious ambition of his earlier years has been replaced with a constant desire to drink, hence Greene’s term for him: the “whiskey priest.” Tired of risking his life, the priest even prays to be caught.

 

It’s nearly 40 years since I first read this Greene classic. I recall being rather bowled over by it back then. Less stunned now but still somewhat in awe of the depth and breadth of the work. The whiskey priest is an extraordinary and complex character living a fraught existence in a society in upheaval whilst also trying to come to terms with his own place in the universe and his religion. It felt darker than I remembered it but also more potent and still troubling in some ways. The pace, the writing and storytelling remain outstanding though and really pleased I revisited it.

 





No sleep til bedtime

18 04 2020

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Dusk is gathering as a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, rides across a silent land.

It’s a crime to be out after dark, and Fairfax knows he must arrive at his destination – a remote village in the wilds of Exmoor – before night falls and curfew is imposed.

He’s lost and he’s becoming anxious as he slowly picks his way across a countryside strewn with the ancient artefacts of a civilisation that seems to have ended in cataclysm.

What Fairfax cannot know is that, in the days and weeks to come, everything he believes in will be tested to destruction, as he uncovers a secret that is as dangerous as it is terrifying …

 

At the beginning I found it hard not to be reminded of the Electric Monk and his ever-patient horse from the Douglas Adams universe but this notion soon disappeared as it turned into a thoroughly entertaining post-apocalyptic thriller. Serious and thoughtful it covers some really big ideas about science and religion but nevertheless manages to be a pacy and gripping tale too, right up to the end. Yet another great read from Robert Harris. Recommended.

 

four stars





Menacing vampires

11 04 2020

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace by Olga Wojtas

 

The intrepid librarian Shona McMonagle, erstwhile Marcia Blaine Academy prefect and an accomplished linguist and martial artist, finds herself in an isolated French mountain village, Sans-Soleil, which has no sunlight because of its topography. It’s reeling from a spate of unexplained deaths, and Shona has once again travelled back in time to help out.

Forging an uneasy alliance with newly widowed Madeleine, Shona is soon drawn into a full-blown vampire hunt, involving several notable villagers, the world-renowned soprano Mary Garden – and even Count Dracula himself. Will Shona solve the mystery, secure justice for the murder victims and make it through a deathly denouement in the hall of mirrors to return to present-day Morningside Library?

 

I really enjoyed the precursor to this which saw Miss Blaine’s outstanding student travelling to 19th Century Russia to solve some tricky problems and was therefore very keen to read the follow up. This latest book, which sees Shona McMonagle on a different time-travelling trip, does not disappoint and offers a similar mix of entertainment, puzzling goings on and intelligent plotting. With vampires. Already looking forward to the next one.

Highly recommended diversion in these most difficult of times.

 

 








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