OOPS! .Miss Laughlin was charged with stealing 12 elastic bands belonging to Lincoln City Supporters Club.
- LINCOLNSHIRE ECHO
Words from a broken grave weekending 1 May 2015
I CHANGED the world ― not a boast but obvious when you look at an atlas. Humanity should be grateful, yet is not; I get short shrift in the histories.
The maps show my stupendous achievement, yet people show it best. My dream still pulls them to The Great Southland, for it is their dream also, an ember glowing deep within the ashes of despair.
Thus begins the autobiography of a penurious sailor who created (eventually) the greatest land in the southern hemisphere. Australia as we know it today emerged from his 1829 adventure leading gentryfolk to find an Eden in the wilderness far distant from the festering convict dumps. James Stirling – the name means ‘strive’ – was from a disgraced family. Ridiculed by powerful enemies, his pioneer settlers survived disorder, disease and hostile indigenes, setting a pattern for later democratic rule throughout the Australian continent.
Last Wednesday, April 22, was the 150th anniversary of his death. The ‘ghost’ narrating how Stirling overcame all odds is skilled author John Ivor, very much alive in revealing the secrets. The first-person account, Captain Striver, emerged from painstaking research into State archives, colonial despatches, old newspapers and Stirling’s handwritten diary.
The book relates Stirling’s role in the Battle of New Orleans, the family stain of court-martial, his marriage, despair and British political intrigues. Being a ‘fictional autobiography’, the style colours real events, yet every remarkable happening is factual. These significantly include the suicide of Viscount Castlereagh and the political ambition of the Duke of Wellington.
Today Stirling’s grave is a broken relic in St John's Stoke churchyard, Guildford, in the English county of Surrey. It is a remembrance unworthy of one of the world’s great achievers. Western Australia, which grew from Stirling’s Swan River Colony, was keen to finance a more fitting churchyard shrine, but these hopes dimmed with the present slump in the State’s vital ironore revenue.
The world has moved on, budgets are critically strained. But after John Ivor’s Captain Striver memoir I’m left with the happy thought that Australia itself is an indestructible memorial to his vision and tenacity.
Happy reading! from Cathy.
O brave new bookworld! week ending 24 April 2015
IT has never been more obvious than at last week’s London Book Fair. The literary landscape has undergone a massive change. O brave new world! How many goodly creatures are there here! That’s what Shakespeare, as a visitor, might have been moved to comment. (Actually he did say that, but in different context in The Tempest). The outstanding differences to tradition at this year’s LBF were (a) Global publishers infatuated with ebooks and (b) self-published authors claiming unprecedented recognition.
Mind you, the annual LBF awards for 2015 tended to ignore authors, one tradition that sticks! Accolades went to publishers around the world and associated commercial factions. But the persistence of self-published authors was never more triumphant. Here they were in glorious spectacle, displaying their goodies, chatting with marketeers and editors, and consolidating a presence that will swell for years ahead.
The LBF has always been about publishing rather than writing, but the 2015 bookfest showed that self-published authors have finally (and magnificently) gatecrashed the event. Making trade contacts is the main value of the LBF rather than winning awards. There are plenty of these offered elsewhere for authors, most recent being the Dublin Literary Awards.
The shortlist for this lucrative prize, just announced, includes ten international books – three translations among them. It is now a truly international event. Translations rarely appeal to me, but the judges reckon they have spotted rare talent. I won’t quibble about that because, after all, the wonderful words in the Bible are a translation of translations of translations!
Yet another trend in the brave new bookworld is that an author has donated half a million pounds of his earnings to help struggling bookshops in Britain and Ireland. Incredible, but it’s happening. The writer is US crime novelist James Patterson who nowadays has morphed into a robotic brandname using 20 other authors. His £500,000 donation to boost physical book stores is, of course, a marketing budget that will doubtless boost his own titles too. And why not? Authors have for years been prodded and bullied by their publishers to do sales tours. Here’s one so deservedly wealthy he can sit back and fund his own publicity in any quirky manner he chooses.
Some more details concerning my above comments . . .
London Book Fair 2015:
LBF Awards 2015:
Dublin Literary Awards:
James Patterson’s gift to bookshops:
Happy reading! from Cathy.
The grip of multiple murders 17 April 2015.
SERIAL killers have a gripping fascination – on readers and authors alike. Mystery and the thrill of the chase guarantee a good read, but mostly these plots feature a cop hunting a psychopath. Out of curiosity, I googled the genre and got 360 titles listed.
Famous authors filled the screen of my laptop . . .Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Thomas Harris, Jeffrey Deaver, Tami Hoag, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen and on and on. Most of them are American and it seems that the serial killer must have especial appeal in the United States, but not exclusively.
Britain’s two most famous writers of crime fiction dabbled in serial murders also. The first adventure pairing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, A Study In Scarlet, was a puzzle over serial suicides. Arthur Conan Doyle, however, preferred to have Holmes solving less prolific deaths. The appeal in his stories is solving a baffling mystery rather than blood spilling.
Agatha Christie? Yes, her cozy village killings usually concern a single homicide, but she, too, dabbled in serial slaughter. The one that springs to mind is Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp in The ABC Murders. Another is Ten Little Niggers – nowadays retitled as the more politically correct Ten Little Indians.
I did not view every one of Google’s 360 serial killer titles so can’t say whether Doyle and Christie are there. Nor another British author known for cozies but who has also penned a notable cozy involving serial murders. The Seventh Petal, by Ann Morven, is different from the norm in that her sleuth is neither famous detective nor police, but a bumbling amateur folk singer. The serial killer strikes in an isolated book club who gather for a weekend at a creepy Highland castle. The mystery is challenging, the denouement thrilling. Highly recommended! It is available from Amazon and other online retailers in paperback, Kindle, or in all digital formats at Smashwords.
Happy reading! from Cathy.
Laughter and the war books 10 April 2015
THERE is no escape. It began last year, and until 1918 the bookworld will be inundated with titles regarding the Great War. It all happened 100 years ago, and each 100th anniversary of each particular bloodbath will be memorialised in print. Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli, Passchendaele and all the others have been written about exhaustively before, yet the studies and the commentaries by modern researchers hold fresh revelations and revised conclusions about the terrible events that shaped the world of today.
Expect more than 1914-1918, because one war, however ‘Great’, is not enough for the scribblers. The aftermath and settlements of the 20th century’s first world war led dissatisfied nations to World War 2, and thereafter to the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all the horrors still flaring in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Ironically, this week being Easter’s aftermath, peace on Earth seems to be a forlorn impossibility for the ever hopeful, ever baffling human race.
It is also a week in which two notable releases revisit the shores of Gallipoli and the suicidal April landings of 1915: GALLIPOLI by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers, and a new edition of Alan Moorehead’s landmark work of the same name.
Strategically sound to war planners, the Dardanelles disaster came about through muddles, mistakes and the interference of Fate. These always seem to crop up in the histories of conflict, and make grim yet fascinating reading. But war writings are not always gruesome. When catastrophe calls, people take refuge in humour. Wikipedia discusses the phenomenon at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_humor#Books. One of my favourites in this genre follows the travails of a boy puzzled by adult weirdness during British preparations for war in the 1930s. BRAT by Bryce McBryce is a fun read with many a startling truth about the way folk behave. It’s a paperback original, described as ‘a literary gem’, and is also available in digital format.
Reviews of the Gallipoli books mentioned above are a feature of the current Spectator magazine.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 10 April 2015.
Some recent reads:
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 3 April 2015.
by Peter May
Thrills, love, nostalgia, mystery. Peter May weaves compelling plots around average people with problems that capture our empathy. For me, this novel is a pageturner equal to his Lewis Trilogy. It opens with a murder and ends with the solution, yet in between lies a great story. Or rather, two parallel stories 50 years apart and involving the same characters.
The narrative in 1965 is first-person and in 2015 third-person. It is a comfortable division. His teenagers revived memories of my own teen years, while vividly depicting London in the ‘swinging sixties’. (Which was before I was born!). Later, as old blokes, their adventure plays out in a contrasting Britain of today. The end twist is stunningly perfect.
JANUARY WINDOW *
by Philip Kerr
For soccer morons. Only brain-dead soccer morons could like this – but do they read? They should, however, recognise the
F-words and C-words that proliferate. I gave up after 88 pages (out of 398). The hero is too nasty and not even interestingly nasty. Ditto the officials and the players. Sorry, Mr Kerr, I love your books and ordered this one ahead of publication, but it is a nasty, boring non-story.
The BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS *
by Michel Faber
Expectations dashed. I have enjoyed Michel Faber’s books but not this one. To be brutally honest, it was for me a waste of reading time and a waste of Faber’s writing time. The interesting concept is strangely unrevealed in the jacket blurb and kept secret for the first 40 pages of dull irrelevant conversations.
When it dawned that a christian missionary was bound for an alien planet to tell them about God I continued with hopeful expectations of Faber entertainment. It never came. If there is a message in this book it passed me by, or perhaps would have been more obvious in a short story. The book of strange things is the missionary’s Bible, yet reaction by the aliens is too sparsely developed and the love angle is unspectacular fizzle. This is 584 pages of non story. I find the thing most strange is that Faber got it published.
FLASHMAN AND THE SEAWOLF ***
by Robert Brightwell
Enjoyable history, thin on laughs. I certainly enjoyed the history and the researched revelations regarding real people and actual battles. This is best described as Boys Own adventure. The narrative voice comes close to GM Fraser yet it lacks his unique ability to make me laugh out loud. Flashman’s uncle, the rogue depicted here, is a little bit too heroic compared to the cowardly dirty rotten scoundrel so beloved by Flashman fans like me.
ALL MY ENEMIES ****
by Barry Maitland.
A whodunit challenge. The title is taken from a play and the murders imitate different happenings in a theatre group’s performances. Easy to guess who dun it? No way.
Author Maitland has compiled a devious puzzle and its solution is well crafted. His characters and dialogue, as usual, are first rate. Sergeant Kathy Kolla’s introduction to Scotland Yard takes her (and Brock) via keen questioning and her peculiar instincts to a thrilling finish.
I found myself relating totally, I was her, new girl amid hardened cops, walking in her boots as she tracks down the killer.
A CAPITAL CRIME ***
by Laura Wilson
Conjoined confusion. This is more Coronation Street than a murder mystery. The narrative twists itself into a soapie, admittedly well researched and with welldrawn characters. For me the problem was finding two novels enmeshed, each detracting from the other.
The secondary plots are more interesting than the murder investigation. This crime and Stratton’s unrelated family woes all involve big problems yet little tension. Even the late revelation of a serial killer plays out in unexciting plod.
WEEK ENDING 27 JANUARY 2015:
Exploring the dark caves
THE poet Thomas Gray says it best: Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear. He was not specifically referring to great books that don’t get noticed, although his Elegy In a Country Churchyard does mention some mute inglorious Milton. It is a fact, however, that genius authors abound today unread in a world saturated with the written word. How can a reader winkle them out?
I still nominate my public library as the place I’ve most frequently found a new favourite. The other method I recommend is a hard slog on the Internet – browse and sample. When I do this I skim past the five-star reviews and read the one-star hates. At least one can be (almost) confident that the haters are being honest. The sad truth for readers is that it is never enough to rely on heaped praise. Likewise, the dismal reality for authors is that it is never enough to write a great book.
Marketeers control the big publishers and smaller ones weep when brilliant books get lost in the literary cosmos. So it’s interesting to learn a few tips from professional publicists. Twitter and Facebook figure prominently in their advice on getting noticed. I suppose one could accept these as multiple word-of-mouth, yet all I have ever spotted there myself is bestselling trash.
So it’s back to browse and sample for me, and a prayer my local library won’t disappear to government cost-cutting.
And here’s a thought: Google your favourite authors, particularly those long dead. I have done this in the Internet ocean and often discover a gem I never knew about, and easily fished from its dark cave.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 27 March 2015
Slow payers rewarded
STRIVING bookshops are nothing new, nor desperate means to cure failing cashflow. I was amused to learn how enterprising retailer Frances Steloff tackled the problem during the 1930s Depression. A poet friend penned a reminder about unpaid bills and this was artistically printed and mailed out, becoming known as The Rubaiyat of Account Overdue.
The verse appears below, but booksellers thinking of using it should be warned it did not always work. It fast became a literary collectable, and all too often regular payers became deliberately delinquent in order to receive a copy.
THE RUBAIYAT OF ACCOUNT OVERDUE
Awake! Depression with its long long blight
Has blown by business higher than a kite
And lo, the First Day of the Month has caught
Me bending, and this letter I indite
Oh Bibliophile, if thou canst not aspire
To pay this overdue account entire
Then break it into little bits, and send
At least some portion, for my need is dire.
Think, in this battered caravanserai
Of books, I also have my bills to pay;
I sometimes fear that never dipped so red
The ink, as where there sits my C.P.A.
Then, my beloved, write the check that clears
That old outstanding purchase of last year’s—
Before my stock and fixtures and good will
Themselves are hurried to the auctioneer’s.
I know that cash is scarce as scarce can be,
Collections slow—you think you’re telling me?
But come in anyhow; let’s talk; besides,
I’ve got a Beerbohm First you ought to see!
HAPPY READING! FROM CATHY, WEEK ENDING 20 MARCH 2015
Good reads forever free
LOCK the doors! Turn off the lights! Ebook Week (March 1-7) has ended its bargains for another year, and top titles return to their regular price. But wait! A few of our stories stay free all the time. This is so the author can be sampled. Enjoy John Ivor’s thrills, irony and humour in The Prize Bride, Invade America, Reverend Rapist or Kill.
Other shorts, by Ann Morven or Bryce McBryce, sell at 0.99c. Bestselling novels by these longtime favourites cost a low $2.99.
Go to our titles at Smashwords.com to click on the books you fancy. How do we manage to keep our books so low-priced? Because they’re so popular and book readers worldwide go on buying.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 13 March 2015.
Some of my recent reads and what I thought of them:
THE STRANGLER VINE ***
by MJ Carter
Enjoyable B-movie stew: Good title, weak plot, but hey, Brit Raj enthusiasts will gobble this down. It’s a colonial stew, blandly boring in parts, overspiced in others, but full of the traditional ingredients. John Company scheming, palace intrigue, snobby white society, enigmatic political agent, dashing redcoats, sabre brawls, assassins, educated native prince, execution by elephant, tiger hunt, Thuggee – it’s all tossed in.
On page 235 of my hardback the young hero comments:
“It seems,” I said wearily, “a little far fetched.” To which no reader will disagree. This is not Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet), nor MM Kaye (The Far Pavilions), nor Katharine Gordon (The Emerald Peacock). The naive colonial narrator doesn’t match John Ivor’s Jeremy (No Kiss For A Killer).The plot lacks cause-and-effect. Things just happen instead of being made to happen by character quirks and rival ambitions.
Despite these quibbles, and because I enjoyed it and the pairing of Blake and Avery, I recommend it for Raj fans. The title is not explained but I interpret descriptions of the strangler vine to be the British East India Company’s grip on India. I look forward to the forthcoming sequel set in London, The Infidel Stain.
AN EMPTY DEATH ****
by Laura Wilson
More than murder: Exciting, informative and vividly describing a location and community long past, the 1944 London Blitz. There are four connected murders and cat-and-mouse suspense between Detective Stratton and a fake doctor. They share the narrative point of view, a device that maintains tense drama.
A third point of view is that of Stratton’s wife. Her problems deftly reflect those unique times of domestic and social hardship, doodlebugs and scary strangers. The plot brings in more than one kind of madness.
This paperback is a good long read of 424 pages. It is more than a regular whodunit/howdunit/whydunit, and this adds to the (often grim) enjoyment. As always, I skipped autopsy and bomb-victim details! The mystery unfolds to an end twist I never suspected.
In the research and the presentation, author Laura Wilson is one of the greats.
A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD *****
by Alan Bradley
Absolutely delicious: This third Flavia whodunit, like the previous, is funny, teasing and pageturning. The actual mystery is well thought out and developed. Author Bradley is a superb entertainer.
THE OXFORD MURDERS **
by Guillermo Martinez
Disappointing: The concept of logic solving murder appealed to me but I was disappointed. Professors and students of mathematics might find some joy here, but to me it was a hotchpotch of academic piffle. I persevered to the end, keen to find a solution to the first teasing puzzle of three figures in a repetitive series one has to guess. The narrator says (page 29): “I realised how simple the answer was.” Alas, I myself never came to any realisation (am I that dumb?) and the author (or the translator) didn’t bother to include it.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 6 March 2015.
China plans to invade the US
IT’S wildly topical: Desperate for economic and political stability, China decides to invade the United States. This gee-whiz scenario, plus tricky plotting and mystery, attracted rave reviews for The War Planners, newly released in January. Reviewers have enthused over the authenticity and writing skill of author Andrew Watts. A former Naval helicopter pilot and flight instructor, he planned real operations during a US Navy career that included the Persian Gulf and the Pacific.
The novella is described on Amazon (also free sample), but I was just as interested in this first-time author who created it with such flair. The book tells how defence experts including a Chinese-American woman seek to avert the threat from China. They are taken to a secret CIA island, but all is not as it seems.
An interview with Andrew (below) revealed his unusual path to authorship.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 27 February 2015.
How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?
I was a US Navy helicopter pilot for ten years. I grew up reading Tom Clancy and Nelson Demille, and always have loved the thriller/suspense genre. One day, while deployed on a nuclear aircraft carrier, I decided to try writing fiction. I really enjoyed it, and when I got out of the military I decided to try my hand at self-publishing. The military thriller genre seemed to fit with my interests and background.
Where did your love of storytelling come from?
I was a US Navy pilot, and we tend to tell a lot of stories about ourselves – almost all of it fictitious. This was just a natural next step.
What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
I hope that my life experience will make my work more authentic. I have flown missions in my helicopter chasing drug smugglers over the Pacific, repelling pirate attacks off the coast of Africa, and I planned ship and aircraft operations while embarked on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I’ve seen a lot of unique places in the world, and would like to bring these experiences to my readers.
Who are some of your favorite authors influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Tom Clancy, Nelson Demille, Michael Crichton. I think these authors had to do a lot of research to get their details so right in their stories. This made them authentic and believable. And to me, that’s what made their stories so compelling.
Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How do you find or make time to write?
Part-time. I have a full time job and three kids under six years old. I write at night and on weekends. It’s slow and tough, but rewarding.
What are some day jobs you have held?
In the Navy, I was a helicopter pilot. I deployed on warships for six months at a time in various parts of the world. I was also a flight instructor in Pensacola – think driver education for new helicopter pilots. It was scarier than any of my deployment adventures! Today I work in marketing for a large corporation.
Did you try to get traditionally published?
I went straight to self-publishing. So far I’m just on Amazon. I love the freedom and the control self-publishing gives me.
What projects are you working on at present?
I am working on the sequel to The War Planners, and hope to have it out in April 2015.
Your free map to the gold
MOST readers have come to realise that the books best known nowadays are rarely the best to read. Marketing has displaced content, and publicity tops talent. The tricks of selling a title to the world are explored in The Economist dated Feb 14, a confirmation that authors need to become ‘authorpreneurs’ in order to succeed.
This is a sad situation, and it changes readers too. Like gold seekers of old, we’ve become prospectors ever hopeful of a rich strike. Accepting, as the Economist states, that ‘chapter and purse’ is the new norm for ambitious scribblers, where do we readers unearth the ‘nonpreneurs’ who simply choose to write a good book and lack the time or skill to promote it? Well, the new norm for hopeful readers is to browse, browse, browse. And always read a sample before you buy, because reviews are unreliable (tastes differ) and blurbed praise usually purchased.
This said, I am surprised on recalling my own book prospecting triumphs. Yes I plod wearily through the online offerings but recently I have discovered a seeming Eldorado. It delivered three authors previously unknown to me who now are favourites. Where is this golden seam? No, it is not my local bookshop, which shelves only mass publicised A-List titles. It is my local public library. Librarians, god bless ’em, can still spot a good book without being overwhelmed by the force of commerce.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 20 February 2015.
Are you bookworm, webgrub or telebug?
HOW many hours a day do you read for pleasure? Here’s a sad statistic: People in The Land Of Most Reading read for only 1.5 hours a day. The country is India where, on a national average, the inhabitants top a worldwide survey of booklovers. The survey, which records per capita hours spent reading per week, shows the average in India is 10.7 hours. Next come Thailand (9.4 hours a week), China (8), Philippines (7.6), Egypt (7.5), Czech Republic (7.4), then France and Sweden (equal 6.9).
Comparing these numbers with my own book munching, I’d have to report a regular weekly consumption of 28 hours (more or less), which takes me far ahead of every nation canvassed. But then, my contribution towards a national figure would be averaged drastically downwards by all the zeroes from non-readers. Similarly, top-ranked India has an awful lot of non-readers to lower the national bookworm average.
Furthermore, by asking around (especially teenaged relatives) I find that book readers have become a cultural minority shadowed by television and the internet. In Britain, per capita reading for pleasure totals only 5.3 hours a week. The United States is slightly better, yet still a disappointing 5.7 hours. It makes me wonder what the book world will look like two generations from now.
If you want to view the aforementioned worldwide survey of pastime preferences and compare them to your own intake of books, television and internet, get ready for a shock.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 13 February 2015.
I CAN imagine the late Colleen McCullough, best remembered for her heart-tugging love stories, sounding her mighty laugh (equally well known) upon catching up with the writer of her obituary, a man who predeceased her. The article in the Australian newspaper created a social media storm.
As newspapers do, it was written many years ago and filed away in a News Corp archive awaiting Colleen’s demise. The intro called her plain and overweight, revealing the obit writer’s sexist view of female celebrities. Times have changed. Readers responded to Colleen’s obituary in their own critical fashion. Informed sources said the obituary writer died some years ago. Nobody at the paper realised it might offend in the year 2015.
History still matters
THE best historical fiction teaches history, which makes it more valuable than ever these days as politics, commerce and science maintain their narrow and separate self-serving agendas. If only more world leaders were aware of the past, and motivated by doing the right thing rather than winning a new fortune/market/election/coup/award. But, you ask, what is the ‘right’ thing?
History suggests the answers. The History Manifesto, a study by historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage, highlights the consequences of historical ignorance. It is not likely to be read beyond learned circles, which is why I re-state the value of fiction authors in reminding the world what happened before.
Reading a review of the work by Guldi and Armitage, I was both amused and alarmed by mention of Thucydides, an author 2400 years ago. I quote this comment on his account of the Peloponnesian Wars, which he presented as a warning to future decision makers:
He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse – triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal ‘human nature’, but his proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.
Fresh from the Amazon jungle
Baffling indeed is the world of an Amazon auditor. According to Publishers Weekly, for the year 2014 the world’s biggest online bookseller achieved sales of $88 billion and yet showed a loss of $241 million. Apart from books, the mammoth company deals in other merchandise. I was not able to understand the figures and I wonder if the tax inspectors will do any better!
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 6 February 2015.
Our language has many bright colours
I AM mad about metaphors, I swoon for a simile. As a literary device they can multiply reading pleasure. Too many, of course, will detract from the story, but good ones speed it along. They add emphasis, raise a smile or a shudder, or simply give an extra dimension to an author’s creativity.
Many images have become cliched through overuse. Every reader has at some time found sleep like a baby, blind as a bat, white as snow, busy as a bee . . . vivid when first invented, they now signpost a lazy writer. The acknowledged master of metaphor and simile is PG Wodehouse, whose humour continues to please readers half a century after his death. Among my favourites is an instant description of Lord Emmsworth ‘prowling like an elderly leopard’. Or a woman who ‘looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say when’.
Where Shakespeare gives us ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, PG imagines a character who ‘felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg’. He specialized in complex humorous portrayal, even in private letters. For example: ‘Things,’ he told a friend, ‘are beginning to stir faintly, like the blood beginning to circulate in a frozen Alpine traveller who has met a St Bernard dog and been given a shot from the brandy flask’.
My musings turned to these and similar figures of speech this week while I was reading one of Alan Bradley’s earlier novels, The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag. He is rather good at creating amusing images. He has someone ‘nodding like a demented woodpecker’, and others ‘queueing like crewmen on a sunken submarine for their turn at the escape hatch’.
Even more enjoyably complex was this one: ‘She made a noise like a distressed passenger at the rail of the Queen Mary on a November crossing of the North Atlantic’. And I quickly grasped a puppeteer’s thespian skill when ‘a rich, mellifluous flow of words came forth as if he had a wooden organ pipe for a larynx’.
Yes, I enjoy Alan Bradley’s whodunits, and his underage sleuth Flavia -- one of the most original and destined to live forever. In this book she is only ‘10 getting on 11’. This delightful character, who narrates each story in Bradley’s series, has been entertaining adult readers for less than six years since the first title appeared in 2009. Bradley was 71 when he launched himself (and his precocious child) into murder fun with The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie. His reliable ingredients are zany characters, a baffling murder, and crisp interaction and dialogue. The author’s really clever bit is getting grown-ups to enjoy his child heroine. But then, Flavia is something of a genius and always manages to outsleuth the professionals.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 30 January 2015.
A January 25 murder is announced
HOT after December 25, when the world celebrated Christmas, comes January 25 and another global joy -- to celebrate the poet Robert Burns. No other rhymer boasts such a vast array of feasts in his honour. Among this year’s events in Edinburgh is the first public display of unhappy lines he scribbled on the flyleaf of a book. His problem? Getting his girlfriend pregnant.
Ah woe is me, my mother dear!
A man of strife ye’ve born me.
For sair contention I maun bear.
They hate, revile and scorn me.
There are two more verses describing his heartbreak after Jean Armour’s parents denounced him and took her to a distant town, away from scandal, for the birth of twins. ‘Bonnie Jean’ was just one of many loves of the passionate poet, and later his wife.
How does she figure in a modern murder mystery? I’d say rather brilliantly. Author Ann Morven presents a baffling plot and lots of Scottish tradition in Murder Piping Hot. This whodunit, however, is not set in Scotland but in Australia, where a Burns Night Dinner is fatally disrupted. Seeking the killer, folksinger Sheil B. Wright challenges pedantic police inspector Sheryl Holmes, descendant of the great Sherlock.
There are tantalising clues and some red herrings as the amateur outsleuths the professional. Overdrawn at the bank, overweight on the scales and nudging forty, Sheil is a dunce at deduction but well versed in human folly and traumas of the heart. She finds clues in an old Scottish lovesong and smutty verse by Robert Burns which actually exists. I loved it (not the smut, the unfolding plot).
Family secrets are revealed, dangerous passions unleashed. Then comes the horrendous truth as the killer decides Sheil must die. Until this sizzling end twist I was altogether bamboozled!
Readers can sample it free in any digital format or in paperback or Kindle.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 23 January 2015.
Faith, Hope and Lotsa Luck
WHEN I peer into my crystal ball seeking future images of the book world all I see is fog. The year ahead does hold lots of promise but it is also going to require lots of luck. Physical bookshops, alas, will continue to close and ebooks continue their revolution. These two trends don’t need a crystal ball. And yet, with Waterstones announcing a dozen new stores to open, and a decline in Kindle sales, there is no certainty in reading habits during the year ahead.
Amazon ‘sales’ are up but profit down. At Smashwords, home of self-publishers, founder Mark Coker reports a great year past and a hopeful one ahead. Meanwhile the New York Times Book Review currently carries an essay denouncing digital commercialisation, where culture has been ‘destroyed by thugs’. Humble readers can only continue to have faith that writers will go on writing, and good ones come to their notice. How we enjoy them is a matter of personal taste. Hardcopy, digital, audio? Take your pick.
One advantage for readers is the ease of browsing and sampling books nowadays, thanks to the Internet. The same tools advantage small publishers in presenting their titles to the world. On that note I lay aside my crystal ball and invite book lovers to taste the offerings on this website. Just click ‘BOOKS’ in the menu bar above to view the goodies we have available.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 16 January 2015.
Forever popular, but why?
IN the opening weeks of 2015, there’s a fresh look at an old question: Why is Shakespeare’s appeal immortal? For more than 400 years, literary critics have been exploring this theme. Generally they agree that it’s because his plots explore human nature, something common to us all. But don’t all authors do this? Most certainly, but Shakespeare somehow did it better and linked his unfolding narrative to controlled structure and (his greatest talent) poetical expression.
Readers won’t find much poetry in a modern whodunit created around the kingpin of English literature, but—true to Shakespeare – it shows how human nature leads to murder. And also to its solving. The whodunit I refer to is The Killing of Hamlet, by Ann Morven. Shakespeare wrote many a tale about murder, yet never a whodunit. In his day they were not an existing form.
Ann Morven lays her plot in a modern English village where the seed of murder was planted unwittingly by Shakespeare himself 400 years ago. It’s a clever fiction and highly entertaining in her usual style of chills and chuckles. The story sets the narrator, folksinger Sheil B. Wright, against the
hi-tech British police after playgoers, and security cameras, see her apparently killing the actor playing Hamlet.
This brilliant mystery is available in any format at Smashwords, or in Kindle, or paperback. It’s a five-star read.
If you prefer just reading what critics have said about Shakespeare over the centuries, go to http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/5880/full
Pictured: The Shakespeare actor David Garrick.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 9 January 2015.
A Puzzling Paradise
THE world has never had so many books, digital, printed or audio. They just keep coming, and the year 2015 opens its arms this week to an ongoing torrent. It’s a Readers Paradise, but also a Readers’ Enigma when it comes to finding the right title for one’s personal taste.
Favourite authors can be snapped up without delay, but discovering fresh favourites takes time in browsing and sampling. This situation gives reviewers an important role. I read lots of reviews and sample unknown authors who come across as likely to appeal. I also like writing reviews. Here are just a few from my recent reading.
The Accidental Apprentice *****
by Vikas Swarup
A scintillating story.
This make-believe is fiction at its best, a geewhiz story that hurtles through one twist after another. It kept me enthralled from its first incredible chapter and the strength is in the author’s storytelling skills.
As with his previous books (Slumdog Millionaire and Six Suspects), which I enjoyed, Indian society is described adroitly along with some of the nation’s current issues. These are honour-killing, child slavery, government corruption, a transplants blackmarket, and so on. Chapter by chapter, the scandals are spotlighted in seven tests of character put to the young woman protagonist. The personal qualities she must show are foresight, courage, leadership, integrity, resourcefulness, decisiveness and . . . I won’t reveal the seventh and concluding outcome.
Now I look forward to the movie. Bollywood producers, please note: Here’s the perfect escapism for some fabulous songs!
The Last of Days
by Paul Doherty *****
A frightening nest of villains.
What a frightening nest of villains, and all real! Paul Doherty has resurrected these nasties from the 1540s to create a gripping novel of intrigue, ambition and murder. English history is unmatched for gory and ruthless happenings when presented to the reader with such flair.
I’ll confess I could not believe the anecdotal horrors related about King Henry VIII and his infighting courtiers, so I made notes and googled them. All confirmed factual. Even the novel’s narrator is convincingly plucked from history.
Author Doctor Doherty, an Essex headmaster, sure knows his history. He also knows how to weave a story that grips.
The narrator is King Henry’s jester and confidant. The fictional conclusion is shocking yet believable, and is based on recorded facts.
A God In Every Stone ***
by Kamila Shamsie
The story disappears.
We all have our place in the chaos of history, says the jacket blurb. As in her previous novels, Kamila Shamsie links ordinary people to world changing events, yet this one goes farther. Her narrative touches two great empires – the Persian of 500BC and the British Empire of the 20th century.
Loyalty and betrayal, love and loss, conflicting ideals . . . all crop up. In particular the Great War 1915 and the hectic 1930s in British India (now Pakistan). The main characters charmingly connect the heritage of two great races – Pathan and English. As I anticipate from this author, the writing is superb. Unfortunately, however, her plot gets lost towards the end and I just don’t get it.
New characters materialise and take over. I was not interested in these strangers. I wanted conclusion for the people who had enchanted me throughout. I mean, what the heck happened to the English heroine? I know she’ll campaign in 1947 for Pakistan independence, but she’s last seen disguised in a burka during the Peshawar Massacre of 1930. And the two male leads deserved better than a casual dumping.
All praise to deep research, informative detail, ambitious vision and skilled writing, but for me a story requires a satisfying ending and I failed to find one.
A MORTAL CURIOSITY *****
by Ann Granger
Fascinating Victorian murder.
Never mind the weak title, this is good reading and an intriguing murder mystery. Set in rural England, and concluding in London, it entails fascinating insights into the people and circumstances of Victorian times.
Amateur sleuth Lizzie Martin and Scotland Yard’s Ben Ross alternate in narrating the puzzle. Their romantic link is kept to a minimum yet spices the telling of an entertaining story. Apart from the unfolding murder clues, the plot embraces detailed research into rat-catching, baby-farming, insanity and the attitudes of the ‘respectable’ upperclass.
The Looking Glass War **
by John le Carre
Story goes nowhere.
An over-eager publisher dazzled by the author’s name failed to insist he finish the job. This story goes nowhere. The positive elements are welldrawn characters, informed insight into cloak-and-dagger administration, and the technical snags in setting up a clandestine radio link in enemy territory.
Berlin Noir *****
by Philip Kerr
These three thrillers depict the genius of the Bernie Gunther character created by Philip Kerr. They also give intriguing insight into recent German history. The first two books are set in the pre-war 1930s when Hitler was coming to power and Nazi brutality growing. The third takes place after WW2 in Occupied Germany when war criminals were skulking in the shadows.
As usual with Kerr, the research is deep and informative, the murders compelling. I loved every page of this trilogy.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 2 January 2015.
Did Jesus exist?
CHRISTMAS, when the world celebrates the Nativity, was a good time to suggest we’ve all been taken for a ride – that is, if you want your controversial book to get noticed. A religious studies professor who claims there was no Jesus repeated his conclusions last week. And re-ignited the longstanding controversy that has involved biblical scholars for generations.
Raphael Lataster lectures in Religious Studies at Sydney University and his book is There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. It is one of many featuring the linchpin of Christianity. Previous works by numerous other writers have presented other theories about Jesus Christ, but largely accepted that there was such a person. He is described variously as a sage, descendant of Aliens, anti-Roman revolutionary, philosopher, deluded martyr and so on. They’re all interesting up to a point, mainly because Christianity – from the time of the Roman Empire -- has shaped the planet we know.
The first book like this I ever read was during my Sunday School days (yes, long long ago). It was by Albert Schweitzer: The Quest For The Historical Jesus. But if this topic interests you the most compelling series I’ve come across is by the recently late Laurence Gardner. His special research was into the bloodline of Jesus, naming present day descendants, and claiming Jesus survived the Crucifixion and died years later in Syria.
For readers who like non-fiction mysteries there’s an endless array of books about The Good Book, and getting to grips with Jesus Historical and Jesus Mythical is compelling stuff.
HATRED and spirituality seem to share a permanent plague in the Middle East. After thousands of years, the violence and slaughter is fierce as ever. Author Gerard Russell takes a look at religions that have simply disappeared, victim to this turmoil. His book is titled Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. His scholarly attempt to record these esoteric beliefs is fascinating history.
Happy Reading! from Cathy, week ending 26 December 2014.
PM sets creative ideal
WHAT is it about the literati? Always bitching about something, someone, anything. And worse even than Opposition policrats and ’ticians. The latest rift is over the Australian prime minister’s taste in books, because he overruled the judges for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
Instead of giving it all to Steven Carroll’s sensitive historical fiction, The World Of Other People, he awarded half to Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Both novels are about World War 2. For reasons best known to themselves, the dissenting judges and others have accused Abbott of making the event a ‘sham’. They can’t accept that the Prime Minister has the right to name his own award winners. The judging panel, however, is only there to recommend, not determine.
At least Abbott can’t be accused of political bias. Richard Flanagan is a rampant leftie. It’s good to see the surfing, cycling prime minister of Australia separates politics and art. And he is the author of four books himself. The London-born migrant’s best known work is Battlelines, published 2009, “a frank analysis of the way forward for the Australian Liberal Party’. His love of books is revealed in this work, too. He advises young people to read the classics, Shakespeare and the Bible, because “literature is a light for the soul”. It’s a nice thought, and I reckon it applies to all books, whatever takes your fancy.
Merry Christmas and happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 19 December 2014.
Some recent reads
Murder at Honeychurch Hall *****
by Hannah Dennisonwww.smashwords.com/books/view/174869
Lively characters, delicious dialogue:
This introduced me to Hannah Dennison and, because it is first in a promised series, I’ll be looking out for more. The mystery is well thought and the characters well drawn, but the strongest appeal to me was the dialogue. I was not surprised to learn that the author has left her native Devon to do Hollywood movie scripts. One could take this book almost as is and present it to the actors, so powerful, perky and informative is the spoken interplay.
Of the characters, the best loved by me were the heroine’s feisty aged mum, who writes steamy romance novels, and Harry aged 7. A Biggles fanatic, this kid is heir to the Honeychurch estate (after his obnoxious dad) and has a tendency to blurt family secrets and an occasional clue (or red herring?).
Company of Spears ****
by Allan Mallinson
The fortunes of peace:
There is less military action than usual, but lots of social interplay and scheming when Hervey hunts a wealthy widow he hardly knows -- to be his bride. The fortunes of peace are no less thrilling than those encountered in warfare, and the final third reverts to what we expect from this author – intelligent officering in Britain’s first conflict with the Zulu Nation in South Africa.
SHADES OF MURDER *****
by Ann Granger
A double delight:
Two separate murder mysteries, unfolding in turn, chapter by chapter, gave me double delight. The parallel narratives are well presented in a way that maintained my interest in both of them. The Victorian murder and subsequent court trial keeps pace with a modern mystery in the same old mansion. The links over 100 years are convincing, the characters fascinating.
Wycliffe and the cycle of death **
by W.J. Burley
An illogical solution:
A prolific and feted author penned this disappointing mystery. An editor should have spotted the flaws before publication. While the narrative flows competently the solution is illogical. There is also a fatal flaw in the plot development. Without giving away details, I’ll just say that a leading character is motivated by knowledge this same character could not possibly know! Apart from this, I was irritated by the author editorialising facts the characters themselves could have imparted without intrusion.
Falcons of Ice and Fire ****
by Karen Maitland
Three voices enchant:
The unusual locations of Portugal and Iceland in 1564 appealed, and I was entranced by the gruesome Inquisition practices. This is superb historical fiction. There’s also lots of folklore and falconry expertise. The plot is a pageturner with good narrative rhythm divided faultlessly between three different voices. Essentially, however, this is a quest story and the final third is more fantasy than history.
False Impressions **
by Jeffery Archer
Brilliant dwindles to unacceptable:
A brilliant beginning deteriorates as this promising plot unfolds. Towards the end I resented this author expecting readers to accept the impossible in a final confrontation between heroine and assassin. (Copy editors where were you!).
Earlier there are some good passages, the best being the heroine enduring the 9/11 Twin Towers atrocity, described in convincing nail-biting narrative. After this, the action becomes repetitive and unlikely. At least one loose end stays unexplained (again irksome).
Political adventure tops world poll
READERS voted a dashing hero their alltime fiction favourite last week, topping Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, Gruffalo and many others. Francis Crawford Lymond is the protagonist in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, set in 16th century Scotland.
He is an outlaw, nobleman, poet and soldier in The Game of Kings, a worldwide bestseller. Francis battles to prove his innocence and restore his honour with the help of an array of wonderful characters – some real, some invented. The result is a saga of treason, political intrigue and romance, brilliantly researched and written with this author’s unique flair.
The poll, which attracted voters from all parts of the globe, was part of Book Week Scotland (November 24-30) run by the Scottish Book Trust. Readers were asked to choose the best character ever in a book by a Scottish author. There are so many literary contenders they form an ocean of talent, and the response by readers showed a healthy awareness of this.
Popular scribblers such as Ann Morven (whodunits), Carol Ann Duffy (romance), Muriel Spark (humanity) and Val McDermid (crime) fell behind as counting proceeded. Masters of the pen also overtaken included Alexander McCall Smith (humour), John Ivor (adventure), Ian Rankin (crime), Rabbie Burns (poetry) and Robert Louis Stevenson (thrillers).
Selections varied widely, from Dennis The Menace to Jekyll And Hyde, Doctor Finlay to Oor Wullie, Irvine Welsh to John Buchan, to Sir Walter Scott. Every one of them is a favourite and all have an army of supporters. Was this competition really logical? No! It wasn’t meant to be, either, it was a celebration of literary wealth aimed at stirring a love of reading.
When the survey began, Philippa Cochrane of the Scottish Book Trust explained: “We decided to open it up to poetry, children’s literature, even Gaelic writing.” Picking a character was a new task. Last year in a similar event, readers voted for a book title – the winner was Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.
There was no time limit on when the characters were created. That’s what I like to hear, because a good character and a great story last forever. Two personal favourites I have mentioned before happen to be contemporary: Sheil B. Wright (mystery), the bumbling female sleuth invented by Ann Morven; and Flashman (historical fiction), an army cad immortalised by George MacDonald Fraser. In reporting the winner, The Scottish Book Trust also listed the Top Ten.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 7 December 2014.
Hate it or love it? Market faces a real Poirot puzzle
SALES of a new book will decide the future of Hercule Poirot, that much is obvious. Not so clear is speed and volume of the publisher’s cash return, because readers are divided on the book’s merits. Since the September launch of The Monogram Murders a flow of ‘hate-it’ one-star reviews has left the bean counters with a mighty puzzle. These days, sadly, a fast buck tops quality in the book world.
The United States and Britain are the major markets for novels in the English language, and Amazon the biggest online retailer. The Amazon reviews by readers who bought this resurrection of the great detective have been mixed.
Author Sophie Hannah has excelled in reviving an Agatha Christie favourite, yet one-star ‘hate-it’ reviews so far exceed the five-star ‘love-it’ in America (out of 265 reviews: 24% hates against 21% loves).). In Britain, where cozy murder mysteries are most popular, the Amazon reviews show 27% loves to 20% hates (out of 167 reviews).
On other Amazon sites, the sales are too low to indicate any particular trend. To me the figures shown above reaffirm that Americans prefer their crime-fiction hardboiled in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but the large number of disapproving Brits is surprising. It could even indicate a change in national reading tastes since Agatha Christie popularised the brain-teaser genre.
Sophie Hannah’s rebirth of the great detective is baffling and brilliant. Her Poirot is exactly Poirot, convincing in every way, arrogant as ever, perceptive as only he can be. She has also nutted out a classic murder mystery worthy of Agatha. Its untangling is clever and devious.
‘Why didn’t I spot that?’ I asked every time Poirot pointed out a clue that had been available to the reader.
In addition to this, Hannah has invented a narrator who is both perfect for the job and peculiar enough to appeal as himself. The perfect Catchpool is a blend of Chief Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings – providing police info and serving as a foil to Poirot’s insight. The peculiar Catchpool is a homicide detective who funks murder scenes. Show him a dead body and he scoots for the door, even forgetting to arrange the Morgue pick-up. His talent is creating crosswords and recording Poirot antics in a pleasant manner, like this:
“Do you see the trees, Catchpool?”
I told him that I did, wondering if he had me down as a colossal idiot. How could I fail to see trees that were directly outside the window?
BACK TO THE BOOK REVIEW: There is a long denouement that, frankly, I would not wish to attempt in digital format. Sometimes the printed paper pages of a book are easier to absorb than onscreen reasoning. In an era of short perception fed by television and the Internet, perhaps this lengthy resolution is a reason for so many ‘hates’ of a prime whodunit. The complex solution is worth the mental plod because this triple murder is a mystery ranking with Fiction’s most famous. I just loved the book and I’m hungry for more!).
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 28 November 2014
Horror with a political aim
IT is a gruesome subject and studying it, I reckon, is an unsuitable job for a woman. And not too cheery for a tough guy, either! All the same, anthropologist Frances Larson has a timely book that explains the peculiar horror of severed heads. Familiar in news bulletins these days, this the most despicable of murders has always been with us.
Her book is called Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. My verdict? The scholarly work is both fascinating and nightmarish. Frances says that decapitation is ‘the ultimate tyranny’. It is a trophy that appeals to psychopaths – and occasionally to politicians or other people with a political aim. The author is a research fellow at Durham University in England and her work explores the political and cultural essence of beheadings.
Lost masterpiece or discarded drivel?
THE great authors are always with us and, from time to time, a previously unknown work pops from an attic or a dusty old diary. The latest is a satire by Robert Louis Stevenson, renowned author of adventure and thrillers. His novel, The Hair Trunk, is now published. But is it any good? Stevenson himself abandoned it after 30,000 words. Modern readers might like it. Read an extract first.
Best books of 2014
NEARING year’s end we get a spate of Book of the Year opinions. The retail chain Waterstones comes early, doubtless hoping to sell a few of its nominations in the lead-up to Christmas. They announce a shortlist of eight. Not every reader will agree, but when was there ever total agreement about the best books? Different offerings appeal to different people, and that’s why the book trade thrives whether the pleasure comes in print, digital or audio.
What now for .book?
AMAZON beat fellow giants such as Google and Bowker to win the right to use the domain extension .book. Having thus shown itself, once again, ahead of everyone else in the book trade the big question is how will Amazon use this unique asset?
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 21 November 2014.
Women lead mystery award
DO women write better crime fiction than men? It’s a much debated subject. Personally I tend to favour the superior cunning of the physically smaller (yet more compact) female brain, but then I’m biased. Nevertheless, the public at large agree with me if we accept the result of the reader-voted longlist for the 2014 Dagger In The Library award.
Run by the Crime Writers Association in Britain, its guide for judgment is an author’s entire work. Following the voted longlist, professional judges have now selected the five finalists, four of these being women. See what I mean?
The winner will be announced early December, but if you’re not already familiar with the Final Five you can investigate their creations online. (One of the blessings of www). Here they are, anyway:
Sharon Bolton has been dubbed by The Times as ‘the High Priestess of English Rural Gothic’. Bolton has written eight crime novels and is the author of the Lacey Flint series.
Elly Griffiths’ novels feature protagonist Ruth Galloway, the Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. Her inspiration for the series came when her husband gave up his city job to become an archaeologist.
Mari Hannah has published four books to date and is the author of the DCI Kate Daniels series. A former Probation Officer, Mari lives in Northumberland where her novels are set.
James Oswald has written four books in the Inspector McLean series and first found success as a self-publishing phenomenon. Set in Edinburgh, his crime novels contain supernatural elements.
Mel Sherratt is the author of what she calls ‘grit-lit’ – crime, psychological thrillers and suspense. She has achieved huge success by self-publishing her five books.
Add the following to view the longlist: MC Beaton (Constable & Robinson), Tony Black (Black and White Publishing), Phil Rickman (Corvus), Leigh Russell (No Exit Press), Neil White (Sphere).
Some of the above are new to me and I’ll be taking a look at their work. Meanwhile my longstanding favourites remain Caroline Graham, Ann Morven, PD James and (recently discovered) Hannah Dennison. All women! Some of the blokes rate highly too, however. I recommend Stuart MacBride (gritty Aberdeen), Peter May (closeknit Hebrides) and Philip Kerr (nasty Nazis). Hey, those male authors are all Scottish. Guess I’m biased again.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 14 November 2014.
Military shambles led to victory
THE glories and the disasters of warfare have inspired many books as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of World War 1. In Australia the emphasis is on Gallipoli, a horrendous military defeat when Churchill sent an Allied force to invade Turkey. Not so well known is a second Anzac shambles during World War 2, also inspired by Churchill.
Anzac Fury by Peter Thompson describes the brave yet futile landings in Greece, subsequent retreat and the infamous 1941 Battle of Crete. This Aussie historian has delved into the military muddles and terrible tactics to analyse the political and personal faults. Also the personality clashes. Churchill was obsessed with striking at Germany’s underbelly from the Mediterranean. The wartime politicians and generals strangely persevered despite repeated stuff-ups and full knowledge of the remote chance of success.
However, this particular boondoogle led to Hitler’s defeat. While victorious, Germany’s almighty parachute division was destroyed in the effort and never recovered.
Although outnumbered, outgunned and prey to German airpower, the tenacity of the Anzacs – who did most of the fighting and withdrew with heavy losses -- delayed the German invasion of Russia by a vital month. The Anzac threat forced Germany to split its all-conquering forces into two fronts. With resources thus weakened, Germany failed on the Russian front, North Africa, Italy and, in the end, succumbed to the advancing Allies in Europe.
For more Anzac histories see the wide selection at http://www.booktopia.com.au/books-online/non-fiction/history/anzac-history/cHBB-p1.html
The inspiring Irish
AUTHORS of Ireland stand out for their unique creations, whether humorous, tragic or sheer Celtic word magic. Readers will find some of the best in the shortlist for the 2014 Irish Book Awards.
Famous ghost stories
WITH Halloween just past, there was timely retelling of many a monster tale. An entertaining look into this genre is contained in a new book by Andrew McConnell Stott. This professor of English presents The Poet And The Vampyre, subtitled The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 7 Nov 2014.
GREAT stories last forever, and that’s why themes and situations they contain will reappear wherever folk read fiction. One of my pet grouses is that the global publishers, who still largely control the book world, milk a brilliant book quick as they can and then discard it. Fast bucks, it seems, is paramount to them. Such behaviour doesn’t have to be. That’s one reason why Amazon has captured wide acclaim – the titles it offers are immortal. It means they are available anytime, anywhere and (Armageddon permitting) forever. And as the world’s biggest bookstore, holding the longest backlist, the fast bucks still flow to Amazon’s delight.
So just what are these everlasting elements that make immortal fiction? We find them most easily in Greek, Norse, Asian and Biblical myths. Also in fiction’s bestsellers. They are the situations and emotions personally familiar to the human race.
This week I came across two modern works that reflect this rather well.
The first cleverly picks up the story of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. In this original tale from Ancient Greece, Orpheus wins back Eurydice from Death by enchanting the demons of Hades with his music. And then, calamity! The modern novel, A Song For Ella Grey, by David Almond, uses similar ingredients of Love, Life and Death. It’s a good read.
The other example is a straight rewrite of ancient oral tales, Mousedeer. A collection from Southeast Asia, each story holds a moral message. This is perfect for parents to read aloud to children aged, say, 4 to 8
HISTORICAL fiction remains ever popular. Check out these great titles for November 2014. And here’s one by top military author Allan Mallinson, published a while ago and still selling well: Warrior deals with a niche topic – the early days of British settlement in Cape Colony and tricky dealings with King Shaka of the Zulus. Mallinson’s spare prose has a military bearing to match his plot. No other writer I can think of reports action and tactics with such directness and authority.
The Cape Colony of 1828 is a thrilling setting for Britain’s headaches on a troubled Empire border, aggravated by the tribal intrigues of Zulu nasties Shaka and Dingane.
And it kills
EVER FASTER! Is there no end to the craving by humans to speed? An interesting new article explores this strange compulsion.
Nobel Prize? No thanks
THE Nobel Prize for Literature is greatly prized by authors, so how could this famous writer refuse it? For a reason he considered well justified.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 31 October 2014.
Loving and learning
AS we go through life we all learn a few things from the joys and snares of romance. Author Maya Rodale claims the painless way is to learn from fiction, and she lists 31 things to learn simply by reading romance novels. Whether or not you can find such enlightenment through reading, as she suggests, there’s delight to be found in her writing about it.
I came across her piece at Huffington Post and this put me in mind of a particular heroine who relies on book learning to the disadvantage of herself and everyone else. Her name is Maggie, created by John Ivor and ever enduring in his Swan River series. Originally aged 9 when sentenced to death in Scotland, this feisty lass survives a pedophile, pirates and slavery in her odyssey to womanhood in Run Maggie Run, a novel that takes her to ‘the end of the world’ (Australia), reading for dear life.
She reappears in No Kiss For A Killer (narrated by headstrong Jeremy), and returns to her own point of view in Eden’s Deadly Shore. Here Maggie reapplies her book learning to unwittingly bring disaster. Mind you, this is historical fiction, so readers (just like Maggie) actually do learn some grim truths about pioneering The Great Southland. Finally, in Amateur Rebel, Maggie continues her flawed progress and her prickly relationship with young Jeremy. Naturally, all ends well and peacefully. Romance? In books it never runs smoothly or there wouldn’t be a story!
Having read all these novels I can recommend them, and maybe readers will pick up from them some useful knowledge about romance. But to get the forementioned 31 lessons listed by Moya Rodale take a peek at her Huffington Post article. I love it.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 24 October 2014.
Great Scot! Fiction idols contend
SCOTLAND is voting again. Hard on the heels of their vote not to leave the United Kingdom, the people are now contesting an even harder issue: who is Scotland’s greatest fictional character?
The nominations make a mountain to rival Ben Nevis and vary from crime to comics. And the debate is more steamy than a hot haggis. Consider some of the contenders created by Scots authors: Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Long John Silver, Peter Pan, Precious Ramotswe, Tam O’Shanter, The Gruffalo, Rebus, Jean Brodie.
From highland glen to city garret, the debate thrives noisily North of the Border. Their paper phantoms are on the march. Wha’s like us? Gye few. (And they’re all alive forever!).
The nationwide poll is part of Book Week Scotland, November 24-30. This is sponsored by arts agency Creative Scotland, which initiated the Week two years ago. Although confined to Scottish authors, it is an open contest that pits comic identities like Dennis the Menace and Oor Wullie against literary favourites such as Jekyll and Hyde, Jean Brodie and Dr Finlay.
In varied manner each is a Scottish icon: sweeter than deep-fried Mars bar, intricate as woven tartan, rollicking as an eightsome reel, passionate as a pibroch. Get the idea? The Scots love their written creatures.
Contemporary writers JK Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Dorothy Dunnett, Muriel Spark, Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, and others, find their genius compared to classic greats Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, AJ Cronin, JM Barrie, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Neil Munro, Kenneth Grahame and the like.
Is this competition logical? No! It’s not meant to be, either, it is a celebration of literary wealth aimed at stirring a love of reading.
Explained Philippa Cochrane of the Scottish Book Trust: “We decided to open it up to poetry, children’s literature, even Gaelic writing.” The topic is new also. Last year readers voted for a book title – the winner was Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.
There is no time limit on when the characters were created. That’s what I like. A good story lasts forever.
My two personal favourites happen to be contemporary: Sheil B. Wright (mystery), the bumbling female sleuth invented by Ann Morven; and Flashman (historical fiction), an army cad immortalised by George Macdonald Fraser
Hey! You’re not allowed to read that book
JUST like readers, every country is different, a situation that leads to certain books being banned. I was reminded of this when Singapore deemed Archie comics to contain unacceptable content and had them removed from retail shelves. Ludicrous yes – to other people. But Singapore’s government, benign in many ways, strongly condemns same-sex marriage. When this behaviour occurred in Archie’s recent adventure, censors in the island republic were quick to act.
Elsewhere in the world, local beliefs and policies have led to similar harsh reactions. Who would ban The Wizard of Oz? A United States library who considered it supported ‘negativism’. The Harry Potter books were banned in many church schools for “inappropriate magic and sorcery”. One of the silliest bans, however, was a version of Little Red Riding Hood. Not because of the wolf or Grandma’s traditional fate, but because her basket of goodies contained a bottle of wine.
Even more ridiculous is the banning of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The reason: Dressed as a boy, Viola falls in love with Duke Orsono. And a dictionary was banned in California for including sexual definitions. Little House on the Prairie was banned for racist attitude towards Redskins (oops, I mean Native Americans). And Tarzan for shacking up with Jane before marriage.
An article in The Christian Science Monitor drew my attention to these forbidden texts. Its magazine section named 30 of them, mostly in the United States, and it makes for an entertaining read. The Washington Post meanwhile listed ‘the 10 most challenged books ever’. The New Yorker magazine also published an essay on banned books.
Why all this coinciding interest in writings that failed to meet universal approval? It was Banned Books Week, an annual event by the American Library Association to highlight the dangers of censorship in a free world.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 10 October 2014.
Some recent reads:
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
by Mohsin Hamid
ODD title, oddly written addressed to ‘You’, but this novel is original and compelling. Highly recommended. Different in concept and entertaining in its vision of the human condition. It is told in a radically unusual voice. I have encountered this before in short stories but never previously for 228 pages of finely crafted narrative. It absorbed me intimately spellbound.
The theme is familiar – from powerless poverty to fabulous wealth. The hero and heroine could be any of us hungry for a better life, just as the jacket blurb promises.
The book’s structure follows the suggestion of its title, with chapters divided into advice -- such as Move To The City, Get An Education, Don’t Fall In Love -- , and so on. Each relates an episode towards the ultimate goal and its pitfalls.
The Curious Incident at Claridges
by R.T. Raichev
Cozy country house mystery. The narrative is in the most entertaining Agatha Christie mood, and the plot worthy of her cleverest. Dialogue paints the characters and carries them along an intriguing murder trail.
It was pleasing to meet the middle-aged amateur sleuths – an army officer and his crime novelist wife. Their respective professions provide much of the light humour.
by Phiip Kerr
Couldn’t put it down, this is one of his best. This thriller, written 1996, takes readers to the Himalayan peaks. It is convincing, informative and exciting. There’s intelligent backing to the yeti hunt, treacherous icefields, scary cliffs and a murderous unknown spy. And let’s not forget Esau and his hairy tribe
Speculation on evolution and the origin of humans comes from the author’s hard research and a bibliography of scientific experts. A mix of nationalities in the expedition, and their conflicting personalities, add to the tension.
by Stuart MacBride
Entertaining horror mystery.
This is a gripping police procedural thriller. Also horror and whodunit. Meat eaters beware! Set in Aberdeen, Scotland, there’s a light touch to the narrative and cops who speak and behave like real people. Which means they’re not particularly nice and not as efficient as law-abiding citizens might wish, but they give the baddies hell.
A serial killer spreads nationwide panic when victims, or bits of them, appear chopped and packaged for sale on supermarket shelves. I liked the hero, a lowly detective sergeant who suffers strife from his superiors and his girlfriend and his scarred stomach stabbed 23 times in the line of duty.
This is a long read. Structure and pace hold nicely. Sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome, entertaining to the sizzling end.
The Blunders of Britain
IT was a close-run thing, as victorious Wellington said after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Another near disaster for Britain, Scotland’s 2014 Independence Vote, was an even narrower escape.
The definite No saw only four electorates out of 32 voting for separation from the United Kingdom. These were Dundee, Glasgow and the near-Glasgow regions of North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. This sounds reassuring but in nearly every area the margin was close. I was delighted when my ancestral Isle of Lewis voted resoundingly No, but concerned that so many voters elsewhere backed the losing Yes camp.
Saving Britain from breakup, the two million No votes outvoiced 1.6 million Yes to avoid calamity – 3.6 million people deciding the fate of Britain’s 60 million! And now comes the aftermath.
Following this near dismemberment the United Kingdom faces years of internal politicking in a backlash from the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and England. These have greeted the new favours promised to Scotland with demands of their own.
Westminster’s blunder was neglecting to see the danger until almost too late. The UK parliament held all the logic for a No vote, yet failed to voice it strongly enough to be heard by jingoistic Yesers.
Nationalist Alex Salmond’s fantasy was itself a blunder because his illogical vision left Scotland still dependent on the British pound with no longer a say in its control; and still depending on British trade and the Union’s market of 60 million people (add Customs Duty) compared to Scotland’s domestic market of a mere five million.
He dreamed a cash-strapped European Union admitting yet another member to prop up (think France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain); he imagined a Defence Force conjured from nothing; tax income to equal Scotland’s present share of massive UK earnings; a Health scheme without existing generous funding; Education ditto; Pensions too; and his naive belief was that the rest of Britain would write off Scotland’s share of UK National Debt.
In short, the Salmond cart was hitched before the horse. He promised to negotiate the above national needs with recalcitrant Westminster only after a Yes vote. The amazing thing is that so many Scots accepted his illogical and belligerent rant.
The whole concept of Scotland leaving the Union was a bad idea allowed to ferment, a blunder allowed to happen. Britain has experienced others, of course, perhaps smaller in scale. While browsing I stumbled upon a whole book of British blunders. They make an entertaining study by political engineers Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The Blunders of our Governments is a razor-sharp diagnosis of flawed government. Its message holds true beyond Britain to democratic nations everywhere.
Fictional blunders make good reading too. I recommend Run Maggie Run by John Ivor. His Scots heroine endures a maelstrom of mistakes in her odyssey to womanhood.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 26 September 2014.