‘Orphan Monster Spy’ by Matt Killeen

This is a very brief review: very brief, because I don’t feel I can do it justice. It’s excellent.

Orphan Monster Spy001

It’s almost unfair to attempt a summary. This is a Young Adult story, but this is one of those occasions when the category is rather meaningless. The protagonist- OK, the heroine- is a 15 year old Jewish orphan girl on the run in Nazi Germany. She becomes involved in spying (with a glamorous, enigmatic British agent) and infiltrates a school for girls of the elite.

So far, a familiar type of theme, but this is handled with power and elegance of language. The plot twists and turns very satisfyingly, with even the last page having an unexpected revelation which made me gasp when I thought it was being wrapped up neatly. Some particularly nasty issues are handled with sensitivity, but without avoiding the nastiness. There are horrible surprises as well as the familiar, never-to-be-forgotten horrors of the ethnic cleansing of the Jews.

Please don’t think this makes the book too unpleasant to read. I’d hate to put anybody off. It’s moving, all too plausible, beautifully detailed and brilliant.

Thanks again to Ms Oblique for putting me on to this.

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The ‘Poldark’ novels by Winston Graham

For those of you who have been watching the BBC TV series, and maybe for those of you who haven’t.

The recent BBC TV ‘Poldark’ series has been justifiably popular. (There was an earlier version which I haven’t seen.) Being me, I saw the dramatisation as a way into reading the original novels by Winston Graham. So I did.

Well, I can report, dear reader, that they are very good. Yes, your “very good” may not be the same as mine, but I mean both that they are well written and that I enjoyed them.

For those of you unfamiliar with Poldark, it is the story of two families, set in Cornwall before and after 1800. The historical context seems to be very accurate. It’s certainly very well described and very believable. There is no flinching from the grim realities of poverty and disease: and the latter can strike both rich and poor, with the medicine of the age by and large spectacularly useless.

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The series has some twelve novels, covering the years from 1783 to 1820. I have read up to book 7, ‘The Angry Tide’, matching the development of the TV series. To invest the time and effort in reading a long sequence like this, one must have some sort of feeling for the characters, and Ross Poldark, undoubtedly the hero of the first two thirds, is a character it’s hard not to like: intelligent, tough and principled; probably sexy, if I did but know it. His wife, Demelza, also intelligent, tough (in a different way) and principled, has a rags to riches story. I certainly fell in love with her. Their personalities are of course (that is not sarcastic) interestingly flawed.

Poldark 1There is a strong cast of others: the unprincipled banker, George Warleggan; the forward thinking doctor, Dwight Ennys; and so on, and so on. Perhaps the working class characters are less prominent than the gentry.

I like the interplay and the feuding; I like the detail; and I especially like the way the history intertwines with real lives.

I will be sad when the TV series finishes (after the eighth novel) but I’m happy to think there will be four further books to read. I almost certainly would not have read these if it had not been for the adaptation, which is very faithful to the original. I admit to often having the screen actors in my head when I read. I recommend them to my readers.

Note 1: I have  selected only images I believe to be copyright free, as usual, in the pretence that the BBC and the Poldark publishers care whether or not I use their pictures without permission.

Large picture: Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark from BBC

Small picture: Jack Farthing and Heida Reed, also from BBC TV’s Poldark

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Note 2: I read them on Kindle. They are still in print and also to be found in second-hand shops.

 

‘Crisis’ by Frank Gardner

This is a great, gripping thriller, with copious convincing detail.

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I do admit to picking this up because I was interested in the author. Frank Gardner must be best known as the BBC’s Security Correspondent. Unfortunately, he is pretty much unmistakable, as in 2004 he was partly paralysed by a terrorist attack and has limited mobility. This has not stopped him going all over the world. His accounts of his disgraceful treatment by certain airlines are telling.

All that doesn’t make much difference to my enjoyment of this novel, apart from a sense of reassurance that the details are right and the scenario is plausible. It’s that wonderful thing, a book where you must find out what happens in the end.

The scenario is that a billionaire drug baron is enormously angry with the British, who are helping the Colombian government to intercept his shipments and networks. He creates a cunning, diabolical plot (no, I’m not being sarcastic) to attack London. Naturally there is a hero, Luke Carlton, who is tasked with foiling it.

If all this sounds rather familiar, well, I don’t care. It came across as fresh and exciting. There are several plot twists which certainly surprised me. How lovely. Did I mention the detail? I’m going to mention it again. Presumably Mr Gardner has got it right; it certainly makes the whole thing sound totally believable.

It’s not, obviously, a “literary” novel, whatever that is; it’s plot driven, the sort of thing I love; but it is well written, and I recommend it to anyone with any liking for thrillers.

‘Meet Mr Mulliner’ by P.G. Wodehouse

Now this I love.

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This copy was lent to me by the estimable Ms O. the Eldest. It’s in the Tauchnitz Edition, “a collection of British and American authors”, which is marked as “Not to be introduced into the British Empire and U.S.A.” Battered it may be, but I wonder how it ended up in England (not the British Empire any more) and who read it on its journey.

Unlike most Ms O. introductions, this author is not new to me- far from it. P.G. Wodehouse has cheered my life for forty years or more, almost exclusively via the fictional personae of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

I have briefly encountered Mr Mulliner before, in ‘Mr Mulliner Speaking’, a book that belonged to my grandfather. Mr M. is a saloon bar storyteller. All his stories are about members of his family, who spread far and wide, in every occupation from clergyman to photographer to scientist to businessman. They all triumph in odd and inventive circumstances. Any dramatic tension is in how the inevitable happy ending will be achieved.

The book (not just this edition) is dated. It’s from another world- perhaps one that even at the time of writing was a fantasy- but one with resonances in the present. For all I know, it might be considered sexist and racist, although my general impression is that Wodehouse tends to look benignly on humanity and (especially in the Jeeves books) regards a lot of “chaps” as “chumps”.

The language is at times flowery, the situations and outcomes implausible. All this of course is what makes it such a lovely read. We are detached from this fantasy world, but we recognise it; and in this world we know that all will in the end be well. It is just invincibly happy and positive.

‘Shakespeare’ by Bill Bryson

I was very amused that Ben Elton has been exercising his satirical expertise in the BBC series ‘Upstart Crow’. Essentially his target was Mark Rylance and the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” theories. As Elton put it in an interview, these are “conspiracy theories…. silly ones….. There is literally zero evidence to suggest Shakespeare did not write his plays”.

Shakespeare 1Well, I’m no literary expert, but I too have never seen the slightest convincing proof to make me doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. However, the furore did inspire me to pick up ‘Shakespeare” by Bill Bryson for a second read.

This is an outstanding biography. He starts by making it very clear that we know very, very little about Shakespeare. There are only about a hundred contemporary documents that mention him or his immediate family. This, amazingly, is far more than most famous figures of his time.

He then points out that research is extraordinarily difficult. Spellings are hugely problematic. We only have six original Shakespeare signatures; each of those is spelled differently, and none of them is spelled the way we write it nowadays. Then there is handwriting. As a very amateur family researcher I know this is often hard to decipher in the last one or two centuries. In 16th century England apparently there were about 19 different ways of writing the letter d.

From these limited resources, Bryson puts together a portrait that is absorbing, adding contemporary detail to put the bare facts of the life in context without undue speculation about Shakespeare himself. But even he sometimes makes statements like: “it is reasonable to suppose that…. Will saw many plays as he grew up”, although he makes these with pretty firm background evidence.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s short- 195 pages- and eminently readable. You would expect nothing less from Bill Bryson.

Finally, to cap it all, it deals mercilessly with the “anti-Stratfordians… who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, four hundred years after it was perpetrated”.

Oh yes, and it’s cheap.

‘The Space Between the Stars’ by Anne Corlett

This is good. You should read it.

This is odd. Don’t bother.

I can’t decide on a summary. I keep changing my mind.

The Space Between the Stars001It’s an end of the world story. A girl called Jamie is stranded on a distant planet when a virus kills most of humanity. The book is the story of how she makes her way to Earth, and how her relationships develop on the way.

Except that’s she’s not a girl, she’s a woman in her thirties. You see, I thought it was a Young Adult story to start with, but the increasing complexities and adult themes convinced me otherwise. It reveals these gradually, with flashbacks, throwing you off balance as it changes the thrust of the narrative.

It’s not literary fiction, whatever that is, but it’s clearly written and compelling. It’s exciting and gripping in places, particularly in a good chase scene. I did find myself flagging in parts, but that’s probably because plot, not introspection, has always been my motivation for reading. Or it may have been my mood.

My biggest criticism is the science, and this is after all a science fiction novel. Interplanetary and interstellar travel are impossibly quick. Ordinary rocket fuel seems to be needed, but there is no mention of how speeds which must be faster than light are obtained. Similar problems occur with almost instantaneous communication across the distances. After a while this starts to be very annoying. I should also add that survival on a post-apocalyptic Earth seems suspiciously easy.

Ultimately this is a novel in a science-fiction setting, rather than a science-fiction novel. The ending is satisfying, bringing a tear or two to this hopelessly sentimental reviewer. I enjoyed it, but its not for the SF purist.

(It’s another read from the Ms. Oblique #1 lending library. Thanks, Ms. O.)

Funny Books

When last week I mentioned P.G Wodehouse and his writing, especially the Jeeves novels, it got a little worm running round my brain. Essentially: what is a funny book? Is it just personal taste, or is there more to it?

Funny Books 1

My personal likes start with the endlessly charming, laid-back approach of Wodehouse. I don’t find him a laugh-out-loud author, just gently amusing. Yes, before you start, he’s probably politically very incorrect and sexist; although his male characters are always subservient to the women, whether by authority or romantic attachment. Like all writers, he was of his time, but lines like: “if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled” show why he never fails to cheer me up.

Straight away I think of Terry Pratchett, but he cannot be considered as purely a comic writer. His books move people, including me, to tears as well as laughter. Very few books, however, reduce me to helpless giggling as much as his do. This is often to the bemusement of others in the room. Who else would have a character like Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who, despite sciatica and piles, manages to triumph by sheer experience and cunning?

‘Three Men in a Boat’, by Jerome K. Jerome (great name!) is the story of a Victorian boating trip. Oddly, my father read it to me as a young child. It’s got some parts which seem to me to be very funny, interspersed with travel writing and passages of what used to be called purple prose. It’s probably now outdated for most readers. A follow-up called ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ (that’s a bicycling holiday) is not as amusing. A favourite part: when they try to open a can without a can opener, beat it into “every shape known to geometry” and then throw it away. Sounds dull? You have to read it to get it, I suppose.

I’m already fast coming to the conclusion that humour in books is purely down to personal taste. What I find hilarious may well be completely unamusing to you, especially if there is a big age gap. As an example, there is a book I inherited from my father called ‘It Don’t Cost You a Penny’, the memoirs (allegedly) of an old soldier who became a batman in World War 2. The humour is of its time again: a Sapper Beer is hilariously known as Supper Beer. It would seem pretty racist to younger readers.

Funny Books 2

Michael Green, author of ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ and many others of that ilk, as well as the now forgotten ‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’, was very funny, but I don’t know that you’d want to read his books continuously, in the same way as you’d read a novel. Similar is Peter Tinniswood, who wrote marvellously inventive books of cricket anecdotes, starting with ‘Tales from a Long Room’, allegedly by a very eccentric Brigadier. They are also books for dipping into, although probably short enough to read in one go, and probably books for cricket aficionados of a certain age only. Pratchett, working in the fantasy genre, and Jerome, whose books are at core Victorian travelogues, have more absorbing material: the humour is an integral part of a narrative.

Similarly, Bill Bryson’s books succeed both as humour and as absorbing travel books. He is another author who needs a “Do Not Read in Public” warning on his books, to avoid the embarrassment as you are snorting uncontrollably. I think he is probably more universally appealing than some of my other choices, though of course I have no evidence.

I am obviously attracted by humorous tales about teaching. Gervase Phinn, Jack Sheffield and others have written many of this ilk. I find them mildly amusing, not hilarious. Perhaps it’s all a bit too familiar for comfort. My colleagues and I wrote a brief parody of our workplace towards the latter part of my career. I still find it highly funny, but it’s very much for a niche audience, which consists almost entirely of the authors. I particularly liked:

“…..a bemused group of breakfast club children munching on the ‘Healthy Option’ of bacon, eggs, black pudding, sausages, baked beans, fried bread and hash browns.” Thanks to whichever of us wrote that bit. It might have been me. I don’t remember. (No. that option was NOT part of our school menu.)

I have written fragments of funny writing. (Well, I laugh.) Some of this is on my other blog:  Oblique Fictions (Well, I still laugh.)

So, there you have it. As usual, just a gentle ramble. My rather trivial conclusions are that humorous literature is very individual and often confined to its time. Consequently humour can easily become out of date. It’s very difficult to write a book whose only aim is to be funny; it’s much better to write a good story or travelogue and incorporate the humour.