00PS! The 46-year-old artist never had no formal training.
-- KENSINGTON AND CHELSEA TIMES
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.