This is now too slow, too unreliable and too swamped with spammers for me.
So, for now, I'm just...
This is now too slow, too unreliable and too swamped with spammers for me.
So, for now, I'm just...
'American Spy' turned out to be a fascinating, well-written thought-provoking book, that I almost didn't buy. 'American Spy is Lauren Wilkinson's first novel so I only had the publisher's summary to go on and that almost made me pass. It opens with:
'What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love? One woman struggles to choose between her honor and her heart in this enthralling espionage drama that deftly hops between New York and West Africa.'
Can you hear my eyes rolling? A Cold War Spy Romance. What a pitch.
Then I saw that 'American Spy' had been on Barak Obama's 2019 summer reading list so I assumed that it was more than pulp fiction.
From the rest of the publisher's summary, I thought I'd be reading an American spy thriller, with fictional characters woven into the real efforts by the CIA to undermine Thomas Sankara, a charismatic Marxist-Leninist Pan-Africanist who become the first President of Burkina Faso in 1983, with the twist being that I the main character was a black woman.
That is the frame that this book hangs on, but it's not really what the book is about.
Anyone looking for a black female version of Jack Ryan is going to be disappointed. This book is closer to Le Carré than Clancy but with a voice all its own.
Like Le Carré most recent novels 'Agent Running In The Field' or 'A Delicate Truth' or 'A Legacy Of Spies', Wilkinson's novel focuses on what kind of person becomes a spy and what it says about them. Where Le Carré focuses on establishment insiders who appear to be fully paid up members of the Old Boys Club but who actually sit a little outside of polite society, Wilkinson focuses on what it means to be a black woman, who is neither welcomed nor valued by the white male establishment and yet chooses to make a career in the FBI in the 1980s.
The style of storytelling shapes the feel of this novel. It's written as a first-person account by Marie Mitchell to her two twin sons. The account opens with a description of an armed man breaking into their home and trying to kill them. The rest is an explanation, for the sons to read when they are old enough, of the background to the attack and the need for the flight from home that follows it.
This 'letters to my sons' format means that the book is as focused on their family history as it is upon the ins and outs of Cold War spying. It also means that it tends to be more reflective in style. There are moments of tension and there is a fair amount of action but most of the novel is a mother's attempt to pass on to her sons who she is and who they should strive to become. Not surprisingly, this means a lot of the novel is about what it means to be black in America in the eighties.
I found the storytelling style very engaging. Marie Mitchell is an unusual woman who understands that some of her choices are driven by her history with her parents and her sister and some are simply about the kind of person that she is. She doesn't sugar-coat that or apologise for it but she does explain it clearly.
As I came to know Marie Mitchell, my understanding of what the 'American Spy' title meant changed. At one point, she tells the story of her FBI Graduation Ceremony. She has been asked to speak at it but, in a training session shortly before the ceremony, her face has been badly bruised by her large, white, male opponent. Mitchel's father, a senior police officer, sees her on the day of the ceremony, takes in her bruises and tells her that she doesn't have to speak. He says:
'You don't owe them anything. You give them what you wanna give them. But it's easier if they think you're one of them. It's easier to work from the inside. That's what I try to do. I've been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.'
There's a lot in this book about what the excluded owe to those who exclude them and about how to make a place for yourself in a world that doesn't want you to be in it.
Marie Mitchel sees the world a little too clearly to be entirely comfortable in it. Here's an example of how her teenage self saw her boyfriend.
'I loved Robbie, which meant he could truly make me furious. In too much of what he said, I heard over-confidence about his limited life experience and his aggressively average intelligence. He was the type of guy that, had he been born white, especially if he’d grown up with a little money, would probably have wound up at an excellent business school.'
It was also interesting to see Marie Mitchel take stock of her own privilege and her very American identity when she finds herself in an African state where everyone sees her as American first and black second.
But this isn't just about being black in 80s American. It's about being Marie Mitchel, a woman who grew up with a mother who left one day to return to Martinique. with an older sister who. from a very young age, was determined to become a spy, and with a father who worked within the system, providing them with a good quality of life but finding himself boxed in to a senior but powerless job.
Marie Mitchell is someone who has learned to keep her inner self secret, hiding it behind constructed identities that she thinks will help her get what she wants. She does this because, at a very deep level, she accepts that she cannot have what she wants if she presents herself as she truly is. I think that instead of the clichéd 'What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?' pitch in the publisher's summary, the real tension in this book is 'What if you getting what you want required you to break cover and show who you are?'
I think the mindset at this novel's core is shown by what Marie Mitchel writes to her boys about Robbie towards the end of the book:
'A part of me still loves Robbie but I can't tell him that. He'd take it as an invitation. I can only confess that to you two, here in these pages. To tell anyone else how I feel about him is to blow my cover. Throughout my life, the most consistent way I've revealed who I really am is through whom I've chosen to love.'
The words 'revealed' and 'chosen' and the thinking they imply drive the events of the novel.
I won't go into the spy story, other than to say that it's credible and has enough twists to keep it interesting. This novel stands or falls by whether or not you're engaged by Marie Mitchel and her worldview.
I found myself fascinated by what she had to say. I think I was greatly helped in this by having the words delivered by Bahni Turpin, whose narration is flawless. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
This week, I'm treating myself to three writers that I know I like.
'Between Two Thorns' by Emma Newman is a fantasy novel about mirror cities, tied to the cities in our world.
'I Shall Not Want' by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the sixth book in her series of mysteries set in the small town Millers Kill New York, featuring Clare Fergusson, the town's Episcopalian Vicar and Russ Van Alstyne, the Chief Of Police.
'The Second Sleep' is Robert Harris' latest novel, an alternative history set in 1468, that I've been told contains a few surprises.
Emma Newman is a British Science Fiction and Fantasy writer who I think is one of our biggest talents.
Her website, Em's Place, is worth a visit. I liked that, as well as all the formal stuff you expect to find on a writer's page, Emma Newman provided a GIF bio (click on the header to go to it):
You know, I hate writing about myself. So I made this as an antidote to my very serious About page. This is everything you need to know about me. In GIFs.
I write books. A few have been published. People have asked me to sign them and everything!
Her Science Fiction novel, 'Planetfall' was one of my Best Reads for last quarter. 'Between Two Thorns' is the first book in her five book fantasy series, 'The Split Worlds' which is set in mirror cities that connect our world with the world of the Fae.
I live in Bath so the first line of the publisher's summary for 'Between Two Thorns' was enough to grab my attention:
Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.
Julia Spencer Fleming is a multiple award-winning America writer for her crime novel series about Clare Fergusson, a retired helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian priest and Russ Van Alstyne, the Police Chief for the small town of Millers Kill in upstate New York.
I read the first book two years ago and have since read another four. I've given each one of them four star ratings. The last book, 'All Mortal Flesh' was a well-plotted mystery that was also an emotional rollercoaster. I have no idea where the series goes from that ending... but I'm very keen to find out.
Robert Harris is an English writer whose books have been on the best-seller list since he published 'Fatherland' an alternative history in which Germany won World War II, back in 1992. He has a passion for history and has written a number of non-fiction books, including 'Selling Hitler - the story of the Hitler Diaries'.
One of the things that I like about Robert Harris is his ability to surprise. His choice of topics is very wide and he never goes quite where you expect. Mostly recently he's given us 'Conclave' about the election of a new Pope and 'Munich' a thriller built around the negotiations between Hitler and Chamberlain just before World War II. With 'The Second Sleep' he appears to be giving us a thriller about a newly ordained priest in Europe in 1468 investigating the dear of his predecessor. I suspect there's a bit more to it than that.
In 'Dread Nation', Justina Ireland introduced us to an alternative America where the Civil War was interrupted by the rise of undead ‘Shamblers' and to Jane and Katherine, the top students in 'Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls'. In the violent conclusion to the first book, the two women are separated and Katherine believes Jane is dead.
'Deathless Divide' carries straight on from 'Dread Nation' but with a significant change in format. Dread Nation' was told entirely from Jane's point of view. In 'Deathless Divide' the storytelling alternates between first-person accounts from Jane and Katherine. Some indication of the contrasting world views of the two women, Jane's chapters start with a quote from Shakespeare and Katherine's chapters start with a quote from the Bible.
The new format has two advantages, we can follow two converging storylines and so cover a lot more territory and we get to know a lot more about Katherine.
What I liked most about 'Deathless Divide' is that, despite encountering zombie hordes, seeing an alternative San Francisco, getting an insight into the lives of a bounty hunter and following a long-running story arc on the mad scientist who is responsible for so much of the carnage, the book remained focused on the personalities of the two women and the relationship between them.
We learn that, although Katherine, who is just as deadly as Jane, she is more anxious, more introspective and more aware of the big picture. Katherine can pass for white, an ability she had to use in the previous book. In this book, she finally admits the strain that placed on her and how little she wants to pretend to be someone she is not.
We also see Jane, driven by a need to kill the mad scientist, start to lose her humanity. Jane's descent into being a predator is captured with empathy but without compromise.
Both women have had to grow up fast since their days at Miss Preston's and have come to realise that they and their world have changed in ways that make the futures they thought they would have irrelevant and unobtainable. The way they help each other to find a future and to compensate for their weaknesses and overcome their fear and anger is at the heart of the story.
I liked that the brutality, greed, fear and racism that drives the America Jane and Katherine are trying to survive in remained plausible and all-pervasive. It seemed to me that the Shamblers sometime felt like a manifestation of all the hate and pain or perhaps a punishment for sin depending on whether you take Jane's Shakespearian or Katherine's Bible-based view.
One of the strengths of the book is Justina Ireland's prose. Let me give you some examples:
In her alternate timeline, the dynamic of the American Dream remains unchanged. True, in this world, the Chinese dominate San Francisco but, as she has one of her characters explain, everything else is the same
‘Don’t let San Francisco fool you. It might seem pretty, but it’s been built on the same volatile mixture of greed and exclusion as the rest of this country. Now, it’s a powder keg just waiting for a spark.'
Then there are Jane's reflections on the conflicts and ironies of her own black-but-could-pass identity, for example:
‘The school had been built in the manner of a plantation house, and while such a design caused the other girls to suck their teeth and shake their heads, it made me feel something that few places have made me feel: safe...
...I do realize that there is a fine bit of irony in the architecture of oppression granting me a measure of peace, but keep in mind I was not always the woman awoken to the dynamics of power I became during my tenure at Miss Preston’s.’
Katherine is very much aware that she can't change who she is. At one point she says:
‘The thing that stuck with me from Miss Preston’s little speech was the idea that we were embarking on a new life. But the problem about starting a new life is you bring your old self with you.’
Then, later, when she's thinking about her own lack of attraction to men or women, she observes:
I have come to believe that it just is not in my being to feel such a powerful longing for a person, not physically nor romantically. I am sure that there are lots of reasons why, and folks most likely would try to blame my upbringing, which I would say is wholly incorrect. I am the way God has made me, and I shall not question the wisdom of my Creator.
We also get some great insights into Jane's decline. In the first book, she was irrepressible and proud of her achievements. In this book, as her life devolves to that of a vengeance-driven killing machine she feels the pain of it. She says to herself:
It’s like someone took out all the things that made me Jane—all the good parts, and the bad—leaving nothing but rusty razor blades in their place.
Maybe this is what despair feels like, a slow descent into an infinite abyss.
'Deathless Divide' was a sequel that didn't let me down, The story kept its momentum and its emotional charge, making me care about the characters and keeping me needing to know what would happen next. The ending was satisfying, credible and left me just a little hope that there might be a third book
I don't send many books back to audible and ask for a refund but this was one of them.
I'd wanted a light, slightly silly, paranormal read that my wife and I could listen to together in the evenings to wind down. 'Grave Magic Bounty' seemed to fit the bill. The main character is a recently divorced woman in her forties returning to her home in Savannah after twenty years away to start a new life and re-enter the Shadow world that she had run away from when she married.
It started to well enough with some flashes of bitter humour about 'himself' her former husband, and stories about life with her (recently deceased) gran, who had taught her how see the Shadows and how to deal with them, that an encounter with a boogeyman that ended with her being sent to an asylum led her to ask her gran to seal off her Sight and that she had left Savannah with no intention of returning.
I thought that was a promising backstory. I liked that it was shared, in bite-sized chunks, while our heroine was going through a bizarre interview in a graveyard that quickly became more like an ordeal by combat with various supernatural those-don't-really-exist-do-they? creatures.
That was enough to get us through the first thirty per cent but not enough to make me put up with the books three main faults: the pacing of the storytelling was uneven and often dragged; the wit was thin, forced, mostly mean-spirited and soon became wearisome, and the main character was very hard to like. She had bitter written all the way through her like Brighton in a stick of rock. She ogled men and werewolves with boring regularity and in a forced penny-in-the-slot knee-jerk way that would have had any male character pilloried. She kept telling herself how clever she was while completely failing to understand what was going on.
A book stops being a relaxing read when you start to wait for the heroine to meet her well-deserved painful ending.
So it went back and I got a refund, which was probably the best part of the experience.
I came to 'City Of Bones' via the 'Murderbot Diaries' I'd read each instalment as came out and enjoyed them all. The next one won't be released for another eight month's so I decided to try out Martha Wells' back catalogue.
I found 'City Of Bones', released in 2007, a decade before Murderbot, and what a find it turned out to be. How did I miss it back in 2007? Well, perhaps I read the publisher's summary which makes it sound like Indiana Jones meets Alladin, and passed. The actual story is much more original.
It tells of powerful people competing to find and control artefacts of an ancient technology that they think will give them powers that are almost magical. The story is set in a world that long ago was turned almost entirely into a deadly desert, leaving the remnants of humanity living in small stone cities built into coastal cliffs. The only people who can move freely through the desert are the Kris, a humanoid race bioengineered by the last of the ancient technologists to survive the worst the desert can do and with whom humanity has an uneasy relationship.
From the start, I found 'City Of Bones' to be breathtakingly good. The world the action took place in was original, credible, richly detailed and very strange. From the outside, these look like people who are struggling to survive, trapped between desert and sea in a city carved into the cliff. A city they'd no longer be able to build and in which society is literally stratified, with the poorest people living at the bottom and the elite having a great view from the top.
From the inside, it doesn't feel like that. This society is hundreds of years old. It has survived the really bad times. It's thriving. The city is expanding. It's elite have ambitions to control neighbouring cities and history is interesting only to academics unless it yields usable technology. I think this inside view is often missing from post-apocalyptic novels. People don't spend generations regretting what was lost. They focus on what they have, what they need and how they can close the gap.
One of the things I liked most about the story was that Martha Wells presents it from the point of view of outsiders. Khat, the main character, is a Krisman, His partner is an immigrant from a neighbouring city who, although he used to be an academic, is not allowed to be a member of the University. Both of them are excluded from official commerce, which is reserved for citizens. This excluded pair make their living on the shady edges of the trade in ancient artefacts and try not to come to the notice of the authorities. Martha Wells understands that the excluded need to see the society they live in very clearly in order to survive.
Khat is charismatic, intelligent, loyal, lethal and a little broken. An early trauma resulted in him exiling himself from his people to live among humans. It also left him with a deep fear of confinement and almost no ability to trust anyone. Khat's emotional detachment seems like a survival trait when we first meet him but, as we get to know him better, it becomes clear that it is a manifestation of a crippling emotional scar.
I liked that Martha Wells didn't trivialise this. She recognises that there are scars that don't heal and experiences that you don't recover from. Khat has built himself a life where he is surrounded by people who accept him for what he's become not out of charity but because they carry scars of their own. Perhaps Khat's biggest achievement is that he has made one friend that he will trust with his life.
All of which will be familiar to those of us who love reading Murderbot.
The plot reads like a thriller wrapped around a treasure hunt, except that Khat isn't thrilled. Hee doesn't want to be there but he can't find a way leave and the treasure being hunted may very well be a curse.
These days, a good Fantasy Thriller needs a heroine to save the day and Martha Wells gives us one. In a normal fantasy novel, our heroine would be presented as bright, brave, more talented than she knows and determined to make things better. Martha Wells gives our heroine all those attributes but also gives us Khat's view of her as naive and unconscious of her privilege.
The relationship between her (the princess-in-waiting / Jedi not yet come into her full powers) and Khat, (the excluded, scarred, survivor) is fascinating. Instead of the normal denied-attraction-blooming-into-romance trope, we have something more complex and truer to the nature of both people.
I had a lot of fun with this book and I'll be dipping into more of Martha Well's back catalogue soon.
I like all the new spaces that Christine and Obsidian have set up on GoodReads but I miss the immediacy and easy interaction of this site.
So, I'm still here. I doubt the place will be fixed unless someone buys it but I'm reluctant to leave.
The site runs so slowly that I have to do something else while I wait. At the moment I'm updating the details of my books on LibraryThing. So far, I've done 1,200 of 2,200 so I'll be able to use it as a distraction for a while.
In 'Gilded Cage', Vic James offers us an alternative version of modern Britain that I found grimly plausible. In James' Britain, everyone owes a decade of slavery to the magic-using elite that has ruled Britain since they executed Charles I in the seventeenth century. The elite, as well as having accumulated vast wealth through centuries of rule, each has the ability to use magic in ways that would allow any one of them to defeat an army.
Yet, their biggest achievement is in not having to use their power because they have convinced everyone that the status quo cannot and should not be changed. They have normalized slavery and made their role as rulers a fundamental part of national identity. They do this partly by letting people choose the decade in which they will serve out their slave days, partly by having humans manage the process of enslavement and the use of slaves and partly by presenting themselves as glamorous and admirable.
For me, what made this alternative Britain so plausible was that, if you take away the elite's use of magic, you're pretty close to how Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg believe England should be. Over the past ten years, we've seen a steady growth in the gap between the wealthy and the rest, a relentless erosion of the Parliamentary power and the installation of leaders who see themselves above the law. What Vic James has done is show how Modern Britain might be if the Tories had had the ability to use magic that made them virtually invulnerable and had had three hundred years to consolidate their position.
'Gilded Cage' is not a political polemic or a dystopia built to deliver a message. It's a tense thriller, built around people we are meant to like who are doing the best that they can. It's also a fascinating look into how creatures with this much power might treat each other.
The main characters, human and elite, who drive the plot of 'Gilded Cage' are under twenty. Their inexperience helps with the world-building. It also gives the book a Young Adult tone that dampened the rage I should have been feeling at these magical Tory Tyrants.
The world-building at the heart of the story is filtered through the experience of two families, a human family from Manchester entering their slave years together and the elite family on their estate in the South that most of them are assigned to serve. One of the human family serves in Milmore, a Northern industrial slave town, giving us a contrast between the different experiences of slavery.
'Gilded Cage' works as a thriller. There are personal and political intrigues within the elite and significant acts of rebellion by the humans and holding them all together is a larger design, hard to see at first, by the youngest son of the elite family to use his power to change the world, although not necessarily for the better.
It was an entertaining, sometimes exciting, sometimes grim read with an ending that worked but which also left me keen to read the next book in the trilogy.
I recommend the audiobook version of 'Gilded Cage'. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
As I read, 'A Shropshire Lad', with some verses so familiar that they seemed like recalled memories, others totally new, but all refined to simply spoken truths, I thought about how I used to listen to music when I was young, way back in the last century, when vinyl wasn't a retro affectation and speakers were attached to my Hi-Fi by wire.
Back then, I bought albums, not tracks. I judged the album as a whole, not song by song. It was an entity where the tone of the entire thing mattered and how I felt about it could be affected by the sequence of the songs. It seemed to me that 'A Shropshire Lad' is like those old albums, the individual verses stand up but some of them are obviously the ones you'd release as singles.
II Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough, captures the urgent hunger for beauty that comes from understanding that life passes quickly and is soon over, so time must be made at Easter 'to see the cherry hung with snow' What an image that is, combining spring and winter, showing how every life carries with it a death.
XIX TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG which goes not to the tragedy of dying but the good fortune of not outliving your glory days so that you don't become another one of those
'Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.'
XL Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
that shows us 'the blue remembered hills', names them 'the land of lost content' and tells us it's a place where 'I cannot come again'.
While these verses are the ones the will earwig their way into your memory, becoming a shorthand for your emotions, the book as a whole has a weight that is more than the sum of the individual verses. This is a life seen whole, with foolishness and wisdom, fear and hope, love and death walking side by side. It doesn't struggle for meaning or sell a message. It simply shows a life's journey and lets us all see how similar the paths we walk are.
I put the final verse LXIII in full at the top of this post because I think it shows how Houseman saw what he had written. Here's the text:
LXIII I Hoed and trenched and weeded, And took the flowers to fair: I brought them home unheeded; The hue was not the wear. So up and down I sow them For lads like me to find, When I shall lie below them, A dead man out of mind. Some seed the birds devour, And some the season mars, But here and there will flower The solitary stars, And fields will yearly bear them As light-leaved spring comes on, And luckless lads will wear them When I am dead and gone.
To me. this says that he understood that not all the verses in the book would be seen as shining stars. I think he also implies that which ones are seen to shine will vary over time as fashion changes. His hope is that some of them will always shine for ordinary people, that the seeds he's planted will blossom
'And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.'
I like that he ends not with death in life as in 'the cherry hung with snow' but with life coming from his death 'As light-leaved spring comes on,'
The Good News - I read people's reviews and I can post this reply.
The Bad News - When I hit the LIKE button, nothing seems to happen and the form for this post took two minutes to load.
But at least we're still here.
'Poirot Investigates', originally published in 1924, is a collection of fourteen Poirot stories, told over 211 pages. They are short, energetic, playful pieces, all centring around Poirot's brilliance in solving apparently unsolvable puzzles.
At an average of fifteen pages per story, there isn't a lot of space for anything more than exposition, investigation and resolution - think the kind of thirty-minute TV mystery shows that were pumped out in the 1970's - but they're delivered with brio, self-confidence and humour that makes them engaging.
The subjects of the stories range widely. We have spies, blackmailers, jewel thieves, cursed Egyptian tombs, a kidnapped Prime Minister and opportunistic but devilishly cunning murders.
The only thing that they have in common is that they let Hercule Poirot play his part of Magician Detective, the man who can and does solve crimes while sitting at his desk with his eyes closed.
I began to see Poirot like this:
What pulls the stories together, and what I found more interesting than the puzzles posed, is the way Poirot and Hastings are revealed to us. With rapid, deft strokes, Christie gives us a clear portrait of both men and the relationship between them.
Poirot, the small man with the large ego, a compulsion for neatness, a self-serving sense of humour and an analytical mind that treats people and their actions as no more than puzzle pieces. A man whose vanity is displayed as much in his refusal to speak English fluently as his luxurious moustaches. He is bright but often less than kind. My main impression of him? M. Poirot, il est un connard, non?
Christie skilfully manages to give us Hastings through his own eyes and still present someone different from the man Hastings sees when he looks in the mirror. He's an affable, reliable man, the epitome of his class, one step up from Bertie Wooster. Woman are an alien species to him but he is always willing to worship at the altar of the auburn-haired beauty, provided she's a woman of good family and character and not one of these 'new' women. It was pointed out to me that he's a perfect example of the Dunning-Krugar effect, a cognitive bias that allows a person of low ability to sustain an internal illusion of superiority.
The early stories read like playful trope twists on Sherlock Holmes stories. They all read as if Christie is having fun playing with ideas and using her stories as a lab for testing them out. Yet, taken together, they give a picture of this odd couple that is very different from Holmes and Watson and much more endearing.
This week, I'm going with two ebooks that I've already started and an audiobook that's been on my TBR pile for a long time.
The first ebook is Matthew Farrell's crime novel, 'Don't Ever Forget' which was my pick from this month's 'First Reads' books offered free on Amazon. It will be published next month.
Katherine Reay's 'The Austen Escape' is my audiobook TBR choice, a lighter contemporary fiction book about a young American woman trying to sort out her life while on a Jane Austen vacation in Bath.
The final ebook is a Golden Age crime novel with a strongly gothic flavour: Annie Haynes' 'The Secret Of Greyland'
Matthew Farrell is an American writer, based in New York. 'Don't Ever Forget' is his third thriller and it brings together the two main protagonist's from his previous novels.
It starts with the killing of a highway patrol officer by people who seem to be being coerced by someone to do something that has so far resulted in a stolen car with a dead body in the trunk.
The reviews I've read range from 'Terrible - read something else' to 'Absolutely gripping'.
I've read the first few chapters. It's not terrible. It is complicated and fast-paced. I'm waiting to see if I'll be hooked.
Katherine Reay is an American writer with eight novels to her name, the titles of which make me smile:
'Dear Mr Knightly'
'The Bronte Plot'
'Lizzy And Jane'
'A Portrait Of Emily Price'
'The Austen Escape'
'The Printed Letter Bookshop'
'Of Literature And Lattes'
Her site describes her novels as,
'... love letters to books. They are character driven stories that examine the past as a way to find one’s best way forward. In the words of The Bronte Plot’s Lucy Alling, she writes of “that time when you don’t know where you’ll be, but you can’t stay as you are.”'
The theme common to most of them seems to be people using favourite characters and novels to navigate the complexities of their own lives. How could any fiction-lover miss out on that?
So I'll be accompanying Mary Davis as she leaves her home in Austin Texas behind and accompanies her childhood best friend on a two week, Jane Austen themed, trip to a manor house in Bath where things will not go to plan. I have the advantage of knowing Bath well so it will be fun to see it through fictional American eyes.
Dean Street Press have recently reprinted all of Annie Haynes' Golden Age Mystery books. Here's what they say about her:
Annie Haynes was born in 1865, the daughter of an ironmonger.
By the first decade of the twentieth century she lived in London and moved in literary and early feminist circles. Her first crime novel, The Bungalow Mystery, appeared in 1923, and another nine mysteries were published before her untimely death in 1929. Sadly there is no known photograph of Annie Haynes still in existence.
Who Killed Charmian Karslake? appeared posthumously, and a further partially-finished work, The Crystal Beads Murder, was completed with the assistance of an unknown fellow writer, and published in 1930.
'The Secret Of Greylands' is August's side read for the Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration group on GoodReads.
I've read the first few chapters and found them to be delightfully gothic. I suspect this won't be my last Annie Haynes book.
I fell in love with the cover and the title and the conceit that the book is built around but I half expected to be disappointed, so many books don't live up to their covers and so many clever conceits turn into pedestrian prose, but instead, I was deeply impressed by 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. So much so that I immediately bought Stradal's second novel 'The Lager Queen Of Minnesota' (another great cover and catchy title but this time my expectations are high).
The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. Eva's life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva's is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva's. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book.
It's easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher.
I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person's story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person's life and what it means to them. Each character's story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.
Yet 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' comes together as something more than a set of thematically linked short stories. The novel has a shape of its own. The effect reminds me of how Hockney amalgamated polaroids for his self-portrait.
Food and food culture are central to the story. Eva has a once-in-a-generation palet and an extreme tolerance for hot spices. Her obsession with sourcing and making perfect dishes coincides with the rise of Foodie culture in the US. I enjoyed watching her lead the charge in sourcing fresh food and getting perfect flavours by having perfect ingredients. I also enjoyed the chapter where we were shown the Foodie culture grown into a pretentious, intolerant cult that was unable to recognise the love in traditional home cooking.
One of the things that I loved about 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated.
Here's an example. When we meet the man who will be Eva's father, he is a chef who, after an extended period of involuntary celibacy, caused mainly by spending his teens stinking of cod from making Lutefisk, finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions.' His reaction to his good fortune made me smile:
'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'
I recommend the audiobook version of 'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' which was perfectly narrated by Caitlin Thorburn. Go here to hear a sample of Audible.
This week I'm reading a memoir, a short story collection that's ninety-six years old, a novel that I've had on my shelves for six years and a novel that I bought two weeks ago.
The memoir is 'The Education Of Augie Merasty' a first-hand account, written in his eighties by a survivor of Canada's Residential School system.
The short story collection is Agatha Christie's 'Poirot Investigates'.
David Mitchell's 'The Bone Clocks' has been lurking on my shelves since 2014,
'American Spy', a cold war thriller, by Lauren Wilkinson, slipped on to my shelves this month after I saw that it had been on Barak Obama's 2019 summer reading list.
I don't expect museum visits to be emotionally charged events but back at the beginning of this century I visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix and found myself skewered by an exhibit called 'Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience.' about First Nation children being forcibly removed from their homes and sent Federally funded, church-run boarding schools to be 'Americanized'. The exhibit was a set of photographs and first-person accounts from four generations of children pushed through schools that taught them to hate their own culture and did their best to destroy it. This was all new to me. It filled me with sadness and anger and left me amazed that no one had ever taught me about it.
Later, when I read 'Nobody Cries At Bingo' by Dawn Dumont, I learnt that a similar program was rolled out in Canada. Canadian Indian residential schools operated from 1876 to 1996 with a brief to remove 'Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture, "to kill the Indian in the child." Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, about 30 percent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally'
Augie Merasty was one of those children. In this short memoir, written by him in his eighties, with help from David Carpenter, Augie shares his memories of what was done to him and his classmates and what the people 'educating' him were like.
Lauren Wilkinson is an American writer whose debut novel 'American Spy' has been very well received. I'm still adjusting to the idea of a writer getting an MFA in 'Fiction and Literary Translation' before producing her first novel instead of just writing a couple of novels that no one will ever see and then managing to produce something worth publishing. Still, the MFA route seems to have worked for Lauren Wilkinson.
What intrigues me about her book is that it's built around real Cold War events when America worked to undermine Thomas Sankara, a charismatic Marxist-Leninist Pan-Africanist who become the first President of Burkina Faso in 1983.
Lauren Wilkinson has inserted Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI who, being female and black, has seen her career stall and who is then offered the opportunity to work to get close to Sankara so she can help bring him down.
I was reminded that I still have David Mitchell's 'Bone Clocks' on my shelf, six years after buying it. when I saw his latest book, 'Utopia Avenue', come out earlier this month. I decided that I had to read 'Bone Clocks' before I would let myself buy another of his books.
I've picked up 'The Bone Clocks' a couple of times over the years and then put it down again unread. This is partly explained by the fact that I'm both attracted to and put off by the way this book is described. Here's the blurb from Vogue: "A cautionary metaphysical thriller that grounds its ambition in its heroine's human charm.".
So this week, I'll find out if I've been missing out or dodging a bullet
I've just joined the newly-founded 'Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration' group on GoodReads, so I have a lot of Agatha Christie in my future.
'Poirot investigates' is our first group read, a sort of warm-up with short stories before we hit our first novel. This is an early collection of Poirot stories before Christie fell out of love with the little Belgian and I'm keen to see what the early Poirot was like.
There are thirteen stories in the collection, four of which have titles that start, 'The Adventure Of...' so I'm hoping for quick puzzles and exotic characters.
Joe Abercrombie's talent is to make an experience so real that you feel you're there.
He turns an incident when a boat, being portered over a mountain, slips its ropes and must be held fast by an exceptionally strong man a great personal cost, into something filled with tension and pain and sweat and stoic selfless bravery that bypasses analysis and hits your emotions like an injection of adrenalin to the heart