Saturday 5 March 2016

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

Some folk say that we spend a lot of our adult lives trying to recapture the moments in our childhood when we were truly happy, before all the baggage and tangle of adult life took over. In a way that's what Joanna Cannon's book is partly about. In 1976 Grace and Tilly are ten year olds and the long summer of that famous heatwave will be that time. Not that far away in Lancashire in the same summer I was also ten and remember it like yesterday as Grace does. The two girls set out to solve the mystery of the missing Mrs Creasy. Early in their investigation they decide that consulting the ultimate witness will do the trick, so they resolve to first find God. He's bound to know. The point of view of Grace is told in a past tense first person style not unlike how Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' told Scout's view of the adult world, with the innocent perspective of the child armed with the vocabulary and the descriptive powers of an adult. These scenes work very well and thoroughly charmed me. She evoked the era by peppering the narrative with brand names (mostly gone now), tv and loads of other cultural stuff synonymous with the era and the place. Perhaps there was a little too much consumption of the Angel Delight though at least I'll remember what my tea towel is called. What lets the book down to a degree is the fairly dull third person accounts of the adult's POV both in 1976 and the frequent flashbacks of 1967. Unfortunately the story would hardly progress without them so they are necessary goatishness . The bright whimsy of the young duo make most of the adult character's existences all the duller in contrast. The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is that the goats just aren't as good as the sheep.
This review was of an Advanced Reading Copy provided by Harper Collins.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Larson delivers a detailed and well researched retelling of the last voyage and sinking of the Lusitania. The ship, its crew and passengers are brought to life again against the backdrop of a world at war. Also of note are his recounts of life aboard the U-20. One star is deducted as Larson obsesses over the state of mind of American President Woodrow Wilson following the death of his wife and subsequent courting of her successor. Wilson's relevance to the story could easily have been summed up in a couple of paragraphs but instead Larson punctuates the book with frequent chapters devoted to the man, including reams of private correspondence and recitations of love letters etc. He declares, as if there is some notable significance that they had 'a chicken salad for their late supper.' And the pay off to all this, following the eventual sinking of the Lusitania is that Wilson pens a snippy note to the Germans. I realise that Larson is using Wilson as a sort of embodiment of America but he really did take it too far.
The actual sinking of the great ship and the recounting of those that were lost and those that survived is well done and respectful of the tragedy.

Friday 6 November 2015

When Marnie Was There

I really miss being able to pass little gems like this one onto my mum. She would have adored Anna and Marnie. Anna is a young orphan girl who by her own judgement is both friendless and unloved. Her foster parents send her to live with an elderly couple in Norfolk in a cottage by the sea. She roams the beach and the marshes all day long, becoming fascinated by a large property called Marsh House and the ethereal little girl spied having her hair brushed in an upstairs window. The prose evokes the wild and natural world around her, sometimes dreamlike and otherworldly. I've visited the area myself and the place does have a sort of otherness to it, though that could be the sheer flatness of the land in contrast to the rolling hills and moors of my Lancashire home. Is Marnie real? Is she a ghost? The mystery of Marnie tugs at your wonderings throughout though the book is much more than a quaint little mystery. It looks at friendship, loneliness, feelings of being forever on the outside and all the insecurities of childhood magnified by the emotional and psychological effects of orphanhood.
I'm glad I managed to read this before watching Studio Ghibli's animé adaptation that caused such a splash last year.
The original line illustrations by Peggy Fortnum are simple but perfectly in keeping with the book. My edition included an afterword by the author's daughter.

Saturday 3 October 2015

The Invisible Man from Salem

It took me a while to get started on this one. The cover on my copy is the one with the black marker zebra stripes scoring out the author and the title on the out-sized cover. It's not a look that begs to be picked up. Junker turns out to be a bit of a train wreck, suspended from the force for a police op gone wrong and dragging a small mountain of emotional baggage around with him. Nordic noir does throw up some really miserable human beings and Junker seems to be a fine specimen of the type. Wallander is almost cheery by comparison. A murder occurs close to home, which Junker bluffs his way into an early look at. He finds an item on the body that links with a friendship from his youth. While the official investigation treads water Junker relives his past which reads, in length, like a coming of age narrative.
Carlsson writes well and his dialogue seems to survive the translation from the Swedish to English without having that stilted edge that you sometimes get in translated work. Themes touch on deal with dysfunctional families, bullying, responsibility, guilt, spiral violence, friendship, social invisibility and crime. Plenty to be going on with anyway. More Junker novels are on the way.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Ten Plus One

The city is plagued with a sniper delivering a .308 slug to the heads of a disparate bunch of victims. Carella and Meyer don't want to deal with a sniper; a perp who can kill from the shadows with almost supernatural precision and impunity. This one is a strongish entry to the series that is only slightly let down by the wrap-up. McBain creates some wonderfully vivid support characters populating the list of possible targets/suspects, not least the gag writer so mentally scarred by a wartime service as a sniper he can never laugh at a joke even though he's a master at constructing them. Although the psychology of being a sniper is glanced at I felt the true heart of the story belonged to how lives can be so indelibly ruined by events that happen during the wildness of youth. There are also two interrogations, one by a neighbouring precinct and another by Carella and Meyer that stand out, both for being brutal, one on a physical level and the other one a psychological one. The disregard the bulls have for a reformed criminal is both sad and shocking but also in keeping with the era and the job. Carella and Meyer's interrogation is purely psychological but no less brutal considering they employ every double teaming trick in the book to try to crack a clearly mentally damaged suspect. Although there is a clear distinction between good cops and bad cops in the story it's a bit of a shock to see Carella and Meyer come up with a gut evaluation that is completely at odds with my own but I guess that's mainly because I'm not on the job.
There's a couple of amusing scenes with Bert Kling and one of the victim's relatives. Is that going somewhere? Who can tell? That's part of the fun of the 87th.

Thursday 2 July 2015

All You Need is Kill

Keiji Kiriya is a young recruit in the United Defence Force. He's cannon fodder in a war against a merciless alien race of invaders. Over-matched and lacking combat experience he takes fatal damage and dies. And then he wakes two days earlier with full memory of his death.  
Hiroshi Sakurazaka's military sci-fi novel is translated from Japanese here. And it translates pretty well. I don't know if its big screen transformation (Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt) is as smooth because I haven't seen the movie yet but I'll definitely take a look now.
I had a fun time reading this one. You'd think a sci-f story about a soldier endlessly reliving a couple of days that ends in a big battle would get boring after a few spin-cycles. These sorts of stories with a groundhog day angle can be tricky. Hiroshi Sakurazaka keeps things fresh though, never forcing us to relive things in a repetitive way but skilfully follows our hero's attempts to break free of his situation. Although you'd expect the narrative to be chock full of bomb's and bullets the battle is sketched over with more focus on Keiji's personal development and his relationship with the only other looper Rita Vrataski, the Full Metal Bitch being the order of the day. It's a shame that Keiji and Rita are the only fully developed characters in the book though.

Friday 19 June 2015

The Monogram Murders

I'm still a bit scarred from reading Anthony Horowitz's authorised but horrifically inept treatment of Sherlock Holmes in House of Silk. Would a similar exercise be any better with Sophie Hannah resurrecting Poirot? My mum adored Sophie Hannah so I was optimistic. I noticed a real rash of one star reviews that were pretty merciless in their hatred of this book. But I was still in Sophie's corner. It seemed they were unhappy that Christie's famous economy of writing was not something Sophie embraced. But Sophie can write it her way - it doesn't have to be a full on pastiche. You can evoke a character without the need to ape another writer's style. And the first scene/chapter when Poirot originally meets Jenny in the coffee shop is fine. It's amusing, intriguing and Poirot lives again. And then Scotland Yard in the shape of Catchpool turns up and it all goes to hell. Well to be fair it isn't Catchpool who heralds literary Armageddon it's the murder itself. The rest of the book is Poirot and the sceptical Scotland Yard man endlessly assembling their thoughts about the crime. It's incredibly over written. Hannah creates such a vast forest of deduction and explanation that getting lost and confused amongst the foliage is inevitable. She doesn't give any of the characters beyond Poirot any life so we inevitably don't really care who dies, why they die or whodunnit.I wonder whether a better fit would have been Sophie Hannah writing Holmes and Horowitz writing Poirot.
I listened to the audio for this one. Julian Rhind-Tutt is a big asset to the production and I love his David Suchet Poirot impersonation.