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.




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.




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.


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