Audio Book Junkie

Audio Book Junkie

My name is Mike Finn and I'm an Audio Book Addict.

I'm here to share my experience of the books I listen to.

Review
1.5 Stars
“The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries” by Gladys Mitchel – BBC Full Cast Dramatisation
The Mrs Bradley Mysteries (Classic Radio Crime) - Mary Winbush, Gladys Mitchell, Leslie Phillips, Full Cast

Good reviews on BookLikes convinced me to try out Gladys Mitchell’s rather unique take on the female upper-class sleuth. I’m one of those folks who feels obliged to start such things from the beginning, so I went in search of an audiobook version of the first book “Speedy Death”.

 

I could only find a BBC dramatisation that  presents “Speedy Death” and “The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop” in a condensed version that accords only ninety minutes to each.

 

“Speedy Death” is presented at pace worthy of the title. The overall feel is that of a pantomime intended for adult consumption. The cast is competent. The production standards are smooth but perhaps a bit too tongue-in-cheek. It seems to me that the dramatisation is cosy almost to the point of being self-mocking whereas the themes in the book : murder, extra-judicial execution, transgender living, lesbian attraction, abusive men and a self-possessed, manipulative older woman would have been quite shocking when the book was published in 1929.  Gladys Mitchell seems to be playing Quentin Tarrantino to Agatha Christie’s more conventional Cohen Brothers but the BBC have turned her efforts into something close to a farce.

 

“Speedy Death” is populated by damaged, privileged people who seem to have no understanding of just how broken they all are. Mrs Bradley, our heroine is a high-functioning sociopath, strong on insight and short on empathy, who stalks ruthlessly and gleefully through the pack of upper-class walking-wounded, mentally vivisecting them with accuracy and obvious, almost manic, pleasure.

 

I finished the dramatisation “Speedy Death” feeling thatI’d been shown the pop-up book version of what might well be a fascinating novel.

 

Things got worse when I reached “The Mystery Of A Butcher’s Shop”. The main murder committed here seems to be by the BBC who effectively killed this novel by slap-dash attempts at humour and a script so clumsy as to be negligent. They added insult to injury by inflicting “Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones” as a chorus sung at random intervals.

 

I suspect that this novel never had a particular strong constitution as it leans too heavily on the sensational supported by the improbable but the BBC have managed completely to drain it of any life it once had.

 

I’m interested in reading Gladys Mitchell but I’ll stick to her text in future.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Dying Light - Logan McRae #2" by Stuart MacBride - grim, violent crime in Aberdeen
Dying Light  - Stuart MacBride

I didn't enjoy "Dying Light" as much as its predecessor  "Cold Granite", the first in this series.

 

The same cast of characters were there as before but now DS Logan McRae has been allocated to the Fuck Up Squad after an officer ended up in a coma during a drugs raid that he lead.

 

I enjoyed the humour and the tension that comes from the orderly McRae having to deal with his chaotic, despotic but strangely charismatic boss in the Fuck Up Squad. The local feel of the book remained strong and the depiction of bored police officers playing "If you had to or die" or "Spit or swallow" while on endless stakeouts seemed credible.

 

The plot was as twisted as in the first book but the sense of compassion and loss was not as strong. I was also put off by the maiming of one of the main characters by a gangster hard man. I recognise that this kind of thing is realistic but the detail in which it was described and the lack of empathy demonstrated by McRae and others left a bad taste.

 

I will continue with this series because it's well written and has strong characters but I'm hoping for something beyond twisted plot and escalating violence in the next book.

 

Kenny Blythe does a great job as the narrator. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear him do his stuff.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/328181286" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

Review
4 Stars
"Iron Kissed - Mercy Thompson #3" by Patricia Briggs
Iron Kissed - Patricia Briggs

"Iron Kissed" stepped this series up from good urban fantasy with a likeable, strong heroine and a satisfyingly complex supernatural world, to something that really gets face to face with abusive power and what it does.

 

In less than three hundred pages, Patricia Briggs managed to move from a fairly conventional (by Urban Fantasy standards) who dunnit, with Mercy trying to prove that her mentor did not murder seven fae on the local reservation, into a book that is really about what men and women do with power.

 

Mercy is brave and loyal and smart but she's not powerful and she doesn't have any magical healing ability. If Mercy gets hurt, she stays hurt.

 

Mercy grew up surrounded by male werewolves with an impulse for violence and the physical power to tear her apart. She survived by learning not to draw attention to herself. That's not an option for her any more. The two earlier books gained her the attention of the local werewolf pack and the local nest of vampires. In this book she is dragged into the affairs of the fae.

 

It is Mercy's vulnerability that makes her courage remarkable. When she stands up to those more powerful than her, with no ability to protect herself from the consequences, it means something.

 

The first part of the book expands our understanding of the fae, a not at all human set of people who will always put their security above the lives of the humans around them. Mercy negotiates a route through their threats where she can and initially this seems like another urban fantasy book where clever humans can outwit the monsters. Then Mercy is cornered by something powerful that wants to kill her and that she cannot fight or outrun.  Her only option is to seek protection. What I liked about this was her reaction: fear, not wise-cracking arrogance; guilt for putting others in danger, not a "hah, trapped you" joy; an understanding that, if things continue as they are, one of the many monsters she is surrounded by WILL kill her.

 

In the second part of the book, things get darker. Much darker. Mercy comes to understand that not all monsters are supernatural. She falls prey to one of them who hurts her, diminishes her and takes her to the brink of self-abnegation.

 

This was not easy reading. We'd left fantasy far behind and become entangle in the worst things we do to each other.

 

Mercy's reaction and the reaction of the people around her, made me cry.  I wanted to cheer but crying got the better of me.

 

The novel avoids a soft, pain free, happy ever after ending. Damage is not so easily undone but, it turns out, hope is not so easily extinguished.

 

I'm hooked now. If this standard of writing continues, I'll be with this series until the end.

 

"Whose Body?" Dorothy L Sayers - DNF - poor narration
Whose Body? - Dorothy L. Sayers

This hit my DNF pile in record time because the narrator mangled the wit in the text with poor timing and zero sympathy with the spirit of the book.

This one goes back to audible and I'll try again with an ebook.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Strange Magic - Essex Witches #1" by Syd Moore -odd but fun
Strange Magic - Syd Moore

In "Strange Magic" Rosie Strange inherits the Essex Witch Museum from her estranged grandfather and finds herself pulled into skullduggery involving violent occult practitioners, a race against time to save a young boy's life and a gruesome treasure hunt.

 

This is a light, fast, often funny read that draws much of its humor and most of its originality from the fact that Rosie Strange is an Essex Girl from generations of Essex Girls.

 

Essex Girls were invented in the UK in the 1980s, a decade when much humor on television was thinly disguised misogyny and racism presented with an "only joking, luv" passive aggressive veneer. The basic premise was that Essex girls were dumb, blonde, working class and promiscuous and therefore deserved to be treated with disdain and abuse in the name of wholesome fun. This stereotype and even some of the alleged jokes survive to the present day.

 

Syd Moore gives Rosie the working class background and estuary accent of the Essex girl. She also makes her smart, independent, irreverent, stubborn, curious,  sexually confident and brave. It becomes clear that Rosie is an archetype of generations of strong women from Essex and that those women explain the disproportionately large number of witches murdered in Essex during the various purges.

 

"Strange Magic" is gentle fun, easy on the ear but with a grit beneath the surface that lifts it into something distinctive.

 

I recommend the audiobook version because accents are an important part of the characterization. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an example.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/340842100" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

In the interview below, Syd Moore talks about the Essex Girl stereotype, its impact and how it got her started on writing this series.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM-v0KhYa8Y?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Off Topic Post: "Nazis. I hate these guys". It's not amusing any more

tumblr_mt4diplb8y1qca1qwo1_250

When I went to see "Indiana Jone and the Last Crusade", back in 1989 and heard Indy spit out the words "Nazis. I hate these guys." the Nazis had almost become figures of fun, caricatures of themselves, still hateful but not a threat.They were locked firmly in our past, to be puzzled over as an anomaly, reviled as a source of evil but never to be encountered again.

 

Twenty-eight years later, things have changed. If I ever wondered how Germany sleep-walked from being a Western Democracy into being a Totalitarian state, led by a man prone to rant and rage, call the press liars, attack judges and pour down abuse on minorities, I have only to look across the Atlantic at Trump's America to see how it happens. Nazis are no longer safely in our past. They're here among us and their power and their confidence is growing.

 

munichI've just started reading Robert Harris' latest novel, "Munich". A few days before, I watched the idiot Trump smugly tell the world that we are in "the calm before the storm", grinning as he hinted at a military action that could tumble us all into a nuclear war. I found myself thinking, "He's surrounded by Generals. Doesn't one of them have the courage to stop this man, who is such a threat to humanity? One bullet would do it."

 

"Munich", explores that thought and the emotion behind it, only substituting Hitler in 1938 for Trump in 2017.

 

I'm looking forward to seeing what he does with it.

 

I hope the generals keep Trump away from the nuclear codes for long enough for me to finish it.

My Best Reads, Best New Finds, Best New Series and Biggest Disappointment in July, August and September 2017

2017q3I felt in need of a bit more stimulation this quarter so I  spiced my normal diet of urban fantasy, crime and science fiction with some mainstream reading, partly driven by this year's Mann Booker Prize Longlist. On impulse, I also added British spy fiction to the mix with surprisingly pleasing results.

 

My staple genre diet was also very rewarding with the long-awaited twenty-first Kate Shugak novel "Less Than A Treason", a strong Scarlett Bernard story in "Blood Gamble" , one of the best Angel Crawford books, "White Trash Zombie Unchained" and a short but entertaining new Peter Grant story in "The Furthest Station".

 

It was such a good three months that it was more difficult than usual to select the best and most disappointing of the twenty-six books I've read but here they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best  Mainstream Reads of the Quarter

Normally I'd just pick one best read here but this quarter's offerings were so strong, I indulged myself with three remarkable books.

 

jon_mcgregor_front_cover"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor as my favourite of the three books I read from the 2017 Mann Booker Prize Longlist although it didn't make the Shortlist-

 

It shows how life is lived in a village over thirteen years, season by season, giving a .surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each other's acts and the things they don’t say or don’t ask. I came to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.

 

The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as I learned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.

 

The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a waterlogged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.

 

“Reservoir 13” has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn’t thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another. It has stayed with me in the weeks since I read it and grown richer in my memory like a place visited and fondly remembered.

 

The wolf border

"The Wolf Border"  has a strong plot that deals with politics and class and the struggle between the wild and the civilized. On that level alone it would be compelling but what sets it apart is Sarah Hall’s muscular writing and her unflinching insights into people.

 

The language is sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always precise. The people are complex and real. The book is filled with sex, death, science, addiction, grief, motherhood and many varieties of love and distaste.

The sex is described with an honesty that is so unusual it is almost shocking. The raw pain and anger that death produces in those who are forced to watch it and survive it are graphically evoked. The overwhelming experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood are embraced without being romanticised.

 

One the themes of this book is rewilding, the untaming of our countryside by returning to it predators that we have long since exterminated. Rachel Caine is working towards this and,

“…would like to believe there will be a place again where the street lights end and wilderness begins: the wolf border.”

Rachel walks this border throughout the book, sometimes seeing herself and those around her primarily as animals dominating their territory but still driven by basic needs and urges, sometimes feeling the pull to retreat from that wilderness into a safer world where she can protect the family and friends that she loves.

 

idaho"Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich deserves a much larger audience than it seems to have achieved. Each chapter is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.

 

It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release.

 

The nonlinear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading “Idaho” felt more like experiencing other people’s lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.

 

There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.

 

Best New Finds of the Quarter

a legacy of spies"A Legacy of Spies" was my first John Le Carré novel and my biggest surprise of the quarter.

 

What surprised me most was how beautiful the language is. Le Carré writes with clarity and precision, capturing nuances of speech, thought and culture with deft touches that are evocative without being obtrusive. He moves skillfully from past to present, from lie to truth, from regret to rage, in a way that fully engaged my mind and my emotions.

 

The premise of the book is a present-day investigation into British security operations during the Cold War. It is told through contemporary interrogations by a rather loathsome lawyer, extracts from official, secret but not necessarily truthful records and intensely intimate memories of Peter, the retired spy from whose point of view the story is told.

 

This is a strong spy story, full of intrigue and deception and betrayal but those are really just the vehicle for the true heart of the novel, which seems to me to be an exploration of the nature of patriotism and the inability and unwillingness of the current generation to understand the context of the actions of the previous generation.

 

As I shared Peter's memories and experiences, his secrets and his regrets, I was reminded of a time when Russia was our overt enemy, holding half of Europe in its totalitarian fist and threatening the other half with conquest or extinction. Patriotism then was a matter of survival not nostalgic flag waving.

 

"A Legacy Of Spies" is not a polemic disguised as a novel, It is fundamentally a very human story of love and sacrifice and deception and regret and most of all, of endurance.

 

Ms Bixby's last day"Ms. Bixby's Last Day"  by  John David Anderson wins my nomination for "book that would make a classic movie"

My blurb for the book would say:

“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”

 

The book is told as three first-person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world behind.

 

At the centre of the book are three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a superhero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.

 

What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.

 

Best New Series of the Quarter

 

Cold GraniteSet in the perpetually rain-drenched granite streets of Aberdeen, “Cold Granite” tells the story of DS Logan “Lazarus” McRae’s return to work after a long sick leave recovering from a knife attack. On his first day back he ends up investigating the death of a young child.

 

What follows is a very Scottish police procedural, crammed with local colour, larger than life characters, raucous humour and unflinching descriptions of death, decay and violence.

 

The pace is perfect. The relationships inside the police force and between the police officers and the press felt very real. There are plenty of credible suspects, a twisted trail of crimes and criminals and, at the heart of it all, a young DS still learning his trade. McRae works hard, is not yet comfortable with his rank, occasionally screws up but mostly spends his energy doggedly pulling together the pieces of the puzzle that can lead him to the murderer.

.

Slow-Horses“Slow Horses” is a (very) British spy thriller, set in contemporary London, in the post 7/7 bombing world of domestic anti-terrorism.

 

The slow horses of the title are security service people who have messed up and have been cut out of the herd of thoroughbreds with whom they’ve demonstrated they can’t keep up. Their punishment is being sent to work at Slough House where they are given pointless routine work that is meant to demoralize them to the point where they will resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them.

 

Slough House is run as a fiefdom by Jackson Lamb, a mercurial despot with a reputation as a dangerous field agent. Discovering why he is there and what he wants is one of the mysteries of the book. His staff are a mixed bunch but it soon becomes clear that some of them are not what they seem. In the world that these folks inhabit, little is what it seems.

 

The plot revolves around the abduction and threatened execution of a boy of Pakistani descent by a group of right-wing nationalist extremists. This takes us into BNP, EDL deluded English Nazis.  The plot is cunning without ever becoming Byzantine. The storytelling keeps the tension cranked up and throws in lots of surprises. The characters and how they interact with each other are credible and compelling. This is Le Carré for the modern day, with a faster pace and a new set of issues.

 

“Slow Horses” is a good thriller made exceptional by the plausibility of the people and the situations. It seems like an insider’s view. As one of the retired Service guys says of Le Carré in this book, “Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s not true".

 

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter

in the guise of another

“The Guise Of Another” was a very disappointing read. It was a book I persevered with rather than savoured.

 

It started as a fairly conventional police procedural novel, albeit with the original premise of finding that the victim of a fatal car accident had been living “in the guise of another”. The police procedural part lasted for a (very slow) first hour or so and then the book took a left turn into thriller land.

 

The idea was interesting but the characters were so clichéd I’m sure you’ll have met them before. Imagine a gone-to-seed, corrupt, American arms dealer, running a decades-long scam on the Department of Defense. Then add the stone-cold killer from Serbia who acts as his muscle. Got a clear picture of both of them? Not hard is it? Not that interesting either, sadly.

 

The plot devices are clever. The action scenes are engaging. The pacing is often a little off. The characters read like a first draft rather than real people. The language and the imagery are functional and pedestrian.

 

Apart from the satisfaction of solving the puzzle and seeing if any of the good guys manage to survive, I really didn’t care about the events in this book or the people they were happening to.

 

What made this so disappointing is that I bought “The Guise Of Another” because I fell in love with Eskens’ first novel, “The Life We Bury”, which was a beautifully written thriller with well-rounded characters

Review
5 Stars
"The Wolf Border" by Sarah Hall
The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall

At the start of "The Wolf Border", Rachel Cain, an English zoologist, is living a stable, semi-wild, almost solitary life working on the grey wolf recovery program in the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Idaho. The book, told from Rachel's point of view, covers a period where her life changes fundamentally as she returns to her native English Lake District to work for an eccentric Earl, reconnects with her estranged family, deals with being pregnant and leads a project to reintroduce grey wolves to the North of England.

 

The book has a strong plot that deals with politics and class and the struggle between the wild and the civilized. On that level alone it would be compelling but what sets it apart is Sarah Hall's muscular writing and her unflinching insights into people.

 

The language is sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always precise. The people are complex and real. The book is filled with sex, death, science, addiction, grief, motherhood and many varieties of love and distaste. The sex is described with an honesty that is so unusual it is almost shocking. The raw pain and anger that death produces in those who are forced to watch it and survive it are graphically evoked. The overwhelming experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood are embraced without being romanticised.

 

One the themes of this book is rewilding, the untaming of our countryside by returning to it predators that we have long since exterminated. Rachel Caine is working towards this and,

"...would like to believe there will be a place again where the street lights end and wilderness begins: the wolf border."

Rachel walks this border throughout the book, sometimes seeing herself and those around her primarily as animals dominating their territory but still driven by basic needs and urges, sometimes feeling the pull to retreat from that wilderness into a safer world where she can protect the family and friends that she loves.

 

Rachel stumbles into motherhood through accident and hesitation. Its effect on her is transformative. It changes who she is, not just by making her into someone who would give her life for her child but by making her understand that her new-found vulnerability is also the key to seeing herself and the world clearly. She tells herself

"The only wound is life recklessly creating it knowing it will never be safe it will never last it will only ever be real."

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book was the way in which the Earl and his daughter were portrayed. It perfectly captured the charm and the power of this class and made my hackles rise in self-defense far more than encountering any wolf would.

 

Loobrealeyheadshot

I recommend the audiobook edition, narrated by Louise Brealey who has the perfect pace and the slightly hard-edged delivery needed for "The Wolf Border".

 

Sarah Hall interviews well. She's frank, articulate and doesn't conform to the traditional "book plug" format.

 

If you'd like to hear her views on "The Wolf Border", take a look at the interviews below in The Guardian and The Independent.

 

 

sarah hallInterview in The Guardian 

The books interview: the author of The Electric Michelangelo talks about her new book, The Wolf Border, how motherhood has affected her work and why avoiding politics in fiction is juvenile.

 

 

 

 

5809511One Minute Interview in The Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review
1.5 Stars
"White Silence" Jodi Taylor - DNF
White Silence - Jodi Taylor

I bought"White Silence" as soon as it came out last month because it has a beautiful cover, is written by Jodi Taylor, whose "St. Mary's" series has given me a great deal of pleasure and is described by the publisher as:

 

The first instalment in the new, gripping supernatural thriller series
and as:

"a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat"

 

Well, I'm twelve chapters and four hours into this ten-hour audiobook and I have yet to experience anything like tension. I'm having difficulty maintaining more than mild curiosity so I'm giving up and reluctantly adding "White Silence" to my Did Not Finish pile.

 

The premise of "White Silence" is intriguing. It tells the story of Elizabeth Cage, an adopted child with the ability to see people so clearly that she knows their character, intent and inclinations on sight. Trained from childhood to hide her powers, she seeks out a quiet life with a quiet man, only to be manoeuvred into the hands of unscrupulous people who want to use her powers for evil.

 

Sounds like stirring stuff in a sort of Superman meets Sixth Sense meets Medium kind of way. Except it isn't. The pace is agonisingly slow. Elizabeth Cage has so little personality that I struggled to care what happened to her and the England of the story seems to be trapped somewhere in an idealised 1950s.

 

Maybe all the good stuff happens in the last 60% of the book and I'm missing out by walking away but life is short and other books are calling to me, so I'll take that chance.

Review
4 Stars
"White Trash Zombie Unchained - White Trash Zombie #6" by Diana Rowland - things go right for Angel
White Trash Zombie Unchained - Diana Rowland

"White Trash Zombie Unchained" is the most fun I've had with Angel Crawford since the first book in the series.

 

How could I not like a book that has Angel Crawford AND zombie alligators in it?

 

Some of the recent Angel books have been dark, as Angel came to terms with her own nature and her new status as a person that needs to eat brains and who LOVES their smell, especially when fresh.

 

"White Trash Zombie Unchained" manages to lift the mood while still embracing and enriching the world-building from the previous novels.

 

Angel comes into her own in this book, showing leadership, taking good decisions and still remaining someone who will rescue frogs from certain death.

 

The book is packed with wit, humor, action and its own distinctive brand of strangeness. The plot stands up on its own, resolves some points from previous books and opens up some intriguing new possibilities. What more could I ask?

 

The book is perhaps a little wish-fulfillment heavy, but hell, I enjoyed it and Angel certainly deserves it.

 

Read this one with a grin on your face. I recommend the audiobook version because, for me, Alison McLemore IS Angel Crawford and she does a wonderful job with this book.

 

I was originally drawn to this series by the striking cover art. Take a look at the pictures below to see how this book cover evolved.

wtzu

 

Review
3.5 Stars
"Autumn" by Ali Smith - shortlisted for 2017 Mann Booker Prize
Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith

Set in 2016 Post-Brexit vote Britain, "Autumn" revolves around the experiences of a young art historian and the old man who helped her learn to see and think when she was a child. The story moves up and down the timeline of both their lives and flips from strange, presumably allegorical, dream sequences, through discussions of art and imagination and freedom through to hyper-real depictions of the modern life.

 


The opening chapter is an allegorical dream sequence that screams the literary equivalent of college band concept album and was almost enough to make me stop reading, yet the next chapter got my complete attention.with a sequence about going into to use the “Quick Check” passport service in the ruined post offices our governments have created as they've pillaged public assets. Ali Smith makes this familiar activity fresh by a muted rage that clings to irony and comic observation as it hangs above the pit of despair that life in a totalitarian state produces.

 


"Autumn" is a book you have to engage with rather than glide through. It's a conversation with the reader rather than an entertainment. For the most part, it was a conversation that I took a lot of pleasure in but there were some parts, dream sequences, long lists of how Brexit split the nation, where I felt as if I wandered into the "Time Passes" section of "To The Lighthouse": I knew I was reading something bold and innovative but it didn't really engage me.

 

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"Autumn" made me re-examine what I thought I knew about the allegedly swinging sixties in England. I was four in 1960 and I realised it's a period that I've never really examined from an adult point of view. I grew up being aware of things referred to in "Autumn" like Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair,  and (at the time) risqué movies like "Alfie" but had no real understanding of them. They were too recent and too long ago.

 ]1939"It's A Man's World" by Pauline Boty[/caption]

I came to British Pop Art much later, so I thought I'd be on firmer ground but I was completely unaware of the work of Pauline Boty, who features heavily in the book and who Ali Smith examined in a piece in the Guardian.  Seeing pop art through the eyes of Ali Smith's characters made me hungry for it, even though most of it normally slides past me.

 

This is a book of big themes and real people. It explores the relationship between memory and imagination and how they compete and cooperate to construct and sustain the story of our lives that we tell to ourselves and others. It’s about seeing past the obvious to the real. It’s about a bloody-minded refusal to give in to all the people and institutions that try to make us live smaller lives. It's about borders and crossing them or being kept out. It’s about triumphing by finding a way to express joy.


This was my first Ali Smith book. It wasn’t always an easy experience but it was a memorable one. “Autumn” is the first of a four-novel seasonal sequence covering how the contemporaneous relates to the diachronic. I will be back for the rest.

 

The first link below is an extract from the audiobook. The second link is Ali Smith talking about "Autumn" to the TLS:

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/331079186" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/293686787" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

Review
4 Stars
"The Furthest Station - Peter Grant/Rivers of London 5.7" by Ben Aaronovitch
The Furthest Station - Ben Aaronovitch

The combination of Ben Aaronvitch's witty, observant, compassionate prose with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's nuanced narration is irresistible.

 

For most of the book, I listened with a smile on my face as Peter Grant shares his views on people, architecture, policing and music while navigating another well-constructed plot that weaves magic, history, location and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature into a compelling story.

 

It wasn't all smiles. Peter Grant is not supercilious. He cares about his struggle to right wrongs or at least to minimise the damage they inflict on the innocent. The books are fundamentally compassionate. They are also laced with sadness and loss. In "The Furthest Station" I found myself feeling sympathy for the ghost of a child and concerned about her fate. Of course, I also found myself amused by the emergence of a young river god and cheering the progress made by Peter's brilliant and cocky young niece.

 

At 144 pages this is a short book. I was concerned that I would find it to be a pumped-up short  story served up to keep the interest of the reading public until the next novel is ready but I put my faith in Ben Aaronovitch and was rewarded with a compact but perfectly formed story that re-immersed me in Grant's world, moved the ensemble cast of characters on and delivered a modern fairytale enlivened with wit and made relevant to today's London. It was a little over three hours of high quality, emotionally engaging, entertainment.

OFF TOPIC POST How Cambridge Analytica turned social media into a political weapon for hire

Then-they-said-Brexit-wont-happen-and-the-Russians-elected-Trump

 

I was one of those people whose understanding of the world was confounded by the outcome of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

 

I watched the Leave Campaign with my lip curled in contempt as they lied and spread hate and made promises on the side of a bus that I knew they couldn't keep. They were so transparent in their lies, so contemptible in their values, so condescending towards those that they wanted to vote for them that I could not imagine a world in which they might actually win. I knew the British public had more sense and more honour than that.

 

I watched with puzzlement as Trump, a reality TV show performer who, at the time of the election campaigns, was being taken to court on charges ranging from rape to fraud, who was openly  misogynistic, mocked disabled people, proudly displayed his ignorance of world politics by asking "What's Aleppo?" during a debate on the Middle East and offered no policies other than building a wall between the US and Mexico and deconstructing Obamacare, become the Republican Party candidate.

 

I was completely clear that the UK would vote Remain and Trump would never make it to the White House.

 

I was wrong. So wrong that I struggled to come to terms with the profundity of my own misjudgement. Something in the world had changed that made my understanding of the possible unsound.

oceanThen, on Twitter, J. J. Patrick gave me three words that showed me what I'd missed: "Cambridge Analytica" and OCEAN.

 

I  have a background in psychometrics so I was familiar with OCEAN. It's the marketing acronym for the Five Factor Model (FFM) for assessing personality.

 

The test just tells me how I process experiences, relate to other people and assess risk. It's useful for putting teams together and managing people but I couldn't see how it could be part of the explanation for my sudden onset of political blindness.

 

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I had to look up Cambridge Analytica. On first glance, they seemed to be a marketing agency that focused on using big data to improve digital marketing. I work with people in this area but I still didn't make the connection. Then I saw the video below of a presentation that Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, gave at the September 2016 Concordia Summit

 

In the press release for the event, Cambridge Analytica was described as

"the market leader in the provision of data analytics and behavioral communications for political campaigns, issue groups and commercial enterprises. With cutting-edge technology, pioneering data science, and 25 years of experience in behavior change, CA provides advertisers with unparalleled insight into their audiences."

 

Alexander Nix was listed as presenting:

 

"his approach to audience targeting and data modeling combined with psychological profiling, explaining how this will continue to enhance elections and disrupt conventional marketing."
 

It doesn't sound like it's going to set the world on fire, does it? In the video, Nix comes across as a calm, clear, academically credible presenter with just enough marketing flair to make his message memorable but not enough flash to undermine its credibility.

It took me a while to get past this accomplished persona and understand what Nix was really offering.

 

He had bought data from Facebook and other social media to collect 4,000 to 5,000 data point PER VOTER: where they live, how they vote, where they shop, what they buy, what they read, what they watch, who they interact with, who they donate to and, most importantly, their psychometric/psychographic profile, collected by offering a free "test your personality here" quiz, which, Nix claimed, enabled Cambridge Analytica to profile “the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,”

 

Cambridge_Analytica_Video

 

This data enabled him to target the voters that were NOT likely to go out and vote for a candidate and hit them where he knew they hung out on social media with messages tuned to be most likely to by-pass their filters and resonate with their personality and identify with the candidate's message on a topic

 

Nix was quietly proud of the fact that this allowed you to win a vote with two different messages, tuned to appeal to two different audiences. He takes the example of gun control and suggests that the pro-gun message needs to be sold differently to different personality profiles using the slide below, Nix said:

 

“For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun. Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”

 

CA2

 

As I watched the video it became clear to me that what Nix was offering to give whoever paid him, an ability to "sell" politicians on a purely emotional basis, to people who might not normally even vote. There is no need for facts, or arguments, or policy just marketing images and slogans targeted to generate uncritical emotional acceptance. Nix had turned big data and psychometrics into a political weapon.

 

Take a look at the video. It's eleven minutes long. Eleven eye-opening, frightening, morally vacant minutes.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8Dd5aVXLCc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

The Leave.EU campaign bought Cambridge Analytica's services. So did Trump. They both ran what Nix calls "data-lead" campaigns. In other words, they figured out what messages, presented which way, would influence which voters and then they marketed the hell out of them.

 

So far as I can see, nothing Cambridge Analytica did was illegal. It wasn't even covert.   Yet its impact on the political contests was like providing automatic weapons to one side of a conflict previously fought with bows and arrows.

 

This is what I had missed. This is why I was surprised. Cambridge Analytica had changed the game and I hadn't noticed.

 

cambridge analytica

 

One other point that I missed was the influence of right-wing billionaires like Banks and Mercer who funded Brexit and Trump.  In theory, Cambridge Analytica's services could have been bought by anyone. In practice, they were bought by campaigns funded by right-wing billionaires.  Steve Bannon heavily linked to Mercer, Trump's advisor during the election and still driving an alt.right agenda via Breitbart was on the Board of Cambridge Analytica.

 

It seems to me that the emergence of Cambridge Analytica and their use by right-wing groups, funded by influential, politically active billionaires is unlikely to have been a spontaneous product of market forces.

 

I believe that replacing policy with marketing messages tuned by big data and psychometrics to alter voter behaviour fundamentally undermines democracy.

 

It creates a moral vaccuum by telling voters whatever they want to hear.

 

It moves from facts and policies to emotions and fears.

 

It is divisive in that it amplifies our fears, focuses on our differences and replaces discussion to reach consensus with sloganeering and mutual abuse.

 

We can't unmake this weapon. We must devise a way to control who has access to it and how it is used.

 

Alternative WarIf you want to know more, read:

"The Data That Turned the World Upside Down" published by Stanford University and written by Swiss journlists, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus.

 

J J Patrick's "Alternative War" ($2.99 from Kindle at the time of writing) which makes a convincing case for disinformation as a weapon in a Hybrid War with Russia to undermine or disrupt Western democracies

 

Review
3.5 Stars
"Persuasion" by Jane Austen, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Persuasion - Jane Austen, Juliette Stevenson

I read "Persuasion" on a wave of enthusiasm for Jane Austen created by reading "The Jane Austen Project". I'd never read the book before and knew nothing of its plot or its ending. I found that this ignorance significantly enhanced my enjoyment of this book about lovers frustrated by circumstance and the things that they have persuaded themselves of or have been persuaded of by well-meaning advisors..

 

I listened to the audiobook version read by Juliet Stevenson who delivered every line with an ease and confidence that made the whole book at once easily accessible and tantalisingly complex.

 

The clarity of the language, the dryness of the wit and the unhurried pace of the book all added to my enjoyment.

 

I was surprised at the vigour of the social commentary in the book. The vain and incompetent Baronet, who takes pride in looks he has convinced himself are not declining year by year and a rank he gained by birth but lacks the acumen to sustain in life is practically vivisected in the text, even though he is the father of the mild-mannered main character.  There is also a spirited championing of the capabilities of women and the role that men play in disadvantaging the development and use of those capabilities.

 

Some of the novel is set in Bath, a city I lived in for many years, so I was amused to see references to streets that apart from the addition of traffic signs and double yellow lines, have remained unaltered since Jane Austen's time. I used to live in the building occupied by the baddy of the plot. It was great fun to imagine these familiar streets populated by Regency sailors and a ladies so unused to exercise and so bound up in corsets that walking up Milsom Street was an achievement.

 

The story itself is rather unremarkable but achieves a considerable level of engagement in  the lives of the protagonists for a plot built on so slight a premise. I enjoyed myself immensely and am now encouraged to move on to the rather more substantial "Emma".

"Gifted"

Gifted-Poster

 

"Gifted" is one of those rare movies that has real people in it dealing with complicated things without any of them being turned into devils of saints.

 

The story hinges on the struggle between Mary's uncle and her grandmother over how Mary, a math prodigy, should be raised. Mary's mother is dead. The circumstances of her death add ground glass into the mix of emotions in this conflict.

 

I saw the movie, in English, in Switzerland where it had been retitled "Mary for the French-speaking audience. Mary is the main character and Mckenna Grace's wonderful performance, which lacks any trace of Disney cuteness but instead shows a real child with strong emotions and a staggering intellect, makes the movie irresistible.

 

I prefer the English title "Gifted" as it has more meanings. The whole family in the film are gifted. The uncle, played with strength and sensitivity by Chris Evans, is very bright but is gifted with an ability to focus his love on Mary. The grandmother, played with nuanced strength and vulnerability by Lindsay Duncan is gifted with great intelligence and drive but has been fractured by her relationship with her daughter. Even so, what everyone has been "gifted" with here is the opportunity to live better lives by loving Mary enough to let her be herself.

 

gifted collage

 

All of the performances in the movie are strong, even that of the one-eyed cat. I'm a long time admirer of Lindsay Duncan but I came away with a renewed appreciation for Chris Evans and the awareness of two rising talents,  Jenny Slate, who was captivating as Mary's teacher, and Mckenna Grace who has an astonishing range and who I expect to see a great deal more of. Octavia Spencer was a strong presence in every scene she was in. I especially love the scene where she and Mary sing along together.

 

"Gifted" is the kind of movie I'd like Hollywood to make more of: subtle script, beautiful camerawork and lighting, excellent performances and all accomplished without the need for CGI. It seems it's also the kind of movie that makes good sense economically. "Gifted" cost $7,000,000 to make, took $446,380 in the US in it opening weekend and had made $24,801,212 after two weeks.

 

I've included the trailer below, even though I think it tells too much of the story. Go see the movie. Take a friend to share it with. Pick someone you don't mind seeing you cry.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqTSKqBCdf0&w=560&h=315]

Review
3.5 Stars
"The Jane Austen Project" by Kathleen A Flynn
The Jane Austen Project - Kathleen A. Flynn

I found the premise of "The Jane Austen Project", time travelers from our future being sent back to 1815 to inveigle their way into an intimate acquaintance with Jane Austen with a view of diagnosing the disease that would kill her in 1817 and retrieving a copy of her unpublished novel "The Watsons", irresistible

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was much more than a good idea written up over a few hundred pages. "The Jane Austen Project" is well written, engaging and original.

 

The story is told from the point of view of Rachel, a physician with a history of working in disaster zones in her own time, who is passionate about meeting Jane and deeply curious about the disease that will end Jane's life.

 

Placing a strong, competent woman with a broad experience of the world and an expectation of being in charge of her own life into England in 1815 is a very effective way of highlighting the constraints placed on women at that time and the frustration and waste that they caused.

 

Rachel is a deeply imagined character that it is easy to become attached to. The future she comes from is tantalizingly different from today. That I wanted to know more about it and her life before the Jane Austen Project, is a sign of skill of the story teller. I was tantalized and intrigued. I came to realise that Rachel's past was as alien as the 1815 present the action takes place in.

 

I was surprised at how much tension I felt reading the book. I wanted to know what happened next. This wasn't an academic exercise or a passive homage to Jane Austen. It started as a difficult mission where failure could have disastrous consequences and became a personal and emotional journey for Rachel and those who's lives she touches.

 

Seeing the world of Jane Austen through the eyes of a woman from an unknown future but who has a detailed knowledge of Jane's life and works produced a kind of refraction of ideas and expectations that kept the novel fresh and made me think again about what I thought I knew of Jane Austen and her times.

 

Fans of Jane Austen will be fascinated by this book. People who only know Jane through various Mr Darcy movies will not feel left out but may find themselves intrigued. My interest in Jane Austen's books was revived to the extent that my next read will be "Persuasion", a Jane Austen novel that I've never read before. 

 

Saskia Maarleveld did a competent job as a narrator but I was distracted by her inability to pronounce place names like "Berkley Square" and "Basingstoke" correctly. You can hear her work on the soundcloud link below.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/317680906" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

 

kathleenflynn

 

This is Kathleen Flynn's debut novel, She's a copy editor at the New York Times. In this interview she discusses how the novel came about and what it was like for an editor to be edited.

 

I hope I see more work from her soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Crow Girl - Erik Axl Sund, Håkan Axlander Sundquist, Jerker Eriksson
Provenance - Ann Leckie