A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.


Family Foodie Connections

We’re inordinately proud of the fact that there’s one published author in our family, so please forgive the plug for my sister-in-law, Becky Thorn, has just published her third cookery book!

no waste The No-Waste Meal Planneris subtitled How to Create your own delicious meal chains that don’t waste a single ingredient.

Becky’s food chains can take us from roast chicken to pizza margerita, via chicken risotto and arancini balls for instance.  However there are some wilder chains too – from poached salmon to chocolate cake in five links – work that one out!  Fun and imaginative cooking that uses leftovers and store-cupboard ingredients to make great food with no wastage.

Becky’s first book, School Dinners, is coming back into print in a new edition this summer too which is great news.  Butterscotch tart *drool*…

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To explore Becky’s books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The No-Waste Meal Planner
Good Old Fashioned School Dinners: The Good, the Bad and the Spotted Dick (being republished on 1st August 2013).
Movie Dinners: Reel Recipes From Your Favourite Films

Blog Maintenance

Dear all,

Just a note to say that alongside posting as normal, I’m going to be starting a programme of blog maintenance over coming weeks – updating links, categories, tags etc. So many apologies for filling up your readers/inboxes with old posts revamped. It may be a bit self-indulgent, but will make negotiating old posts a lot easier for me when I want to refer back. I also hope I may find some interesting things I’d forgotten along the way!

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter


I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.


New arrivals …

It’s so long since I did an ‘Incoming’ post. I don’t like to overdo them, but have recently acquired some great books I wanted to share with you…

    • The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway. Billed as ‘a story of love and time travel’ I couldn’t resist accepting a review copy of this book published next week.
    • Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects by Neil McGregor. Drawing you into Shakespeare’s world, McGregor analyses how these objects influenced his life and times. Based on the Radio 4 series which I enjoyed so had to buy. A beautifully produced book.
    • Constance by Patrick McGrath. Another beautifully produced book that I couldn’t resist buying. I’m loving these new designs from Bloomsbury Circus – squarer than standard paperbacks, and with French flaps. It’ll be my first McGrath read, and I’m looking forward to it.
    • Beautiful Fools by R Clifton Spargo. Given that I adored Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby last week, browsing in my favourite bookshop yesterday, this book shouted out to me. It’s a novel based on the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.


  • The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers. New out in paperback – Yippee!
  • Emilie and the Hollow Worldby Martha Wells. This YA book also shouted from the shelves to me – a bit steampunk, a bit like Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar books – this novel from the new Strange Chemistry imprint from Angry Robot books sounds great fun.
  • A Heart so Whiteby Javier Marias, trans Margaret Jull Costa. This was a charity shop find – I love Penguin Modern Classics and having spotted this one in great condition bought it without even looking at the blurb.

Have you read any of these?
Have you got any good new books recently?

Travelling Man

Lost Luggageby Jordi Punti, translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark.

lost luggage

This is the story of Gabriel Delacruz, orphan, international furniture remover and father to four sons. Four boys – born in four different countries to four different mothers; one German, one English, one French and one Spanish, and all christened the local equivalent of the name Christopher. They are not aware of each other’s existence, and none of them have seen their father for a couple of decades.

The ‘Four Christophers’ finally meet when the youngest, Cristòfol is contacted by the police when his father goes missing. He finds a piece of paper with the details of his brothers on.  The Christophers meet to learn each others stories, and also to research their father – they don’t believe he’s dead.

In fact, disappeared isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word.  Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. …
This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. … In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.

The brothers take their turns to tell their stories. How their mothers met Gabriel, their births, and those rare visits throughout their childhood.  Although they are very different, they all get on well, making up for lost time.  Their mothers were all independent women and despite the lack of a permanent father figure in their lives, they have made the most of things. They start meeting regularly to talk, and search out Gabriel’s friends and acquaintances to help fill in the gaps.

Alongside Gabriel’s unfolding story was that of his fellow orphan and colleague Bundo. Together since their days in the ophanage, their undying friendship was the most touching part of this story. Whereas Gabriel had a woman in each port so to speak, there was only ever one girl for Bundo but he had to share her, for Carolina was a prostitute in a roadhouse outside Lyon.

One of the naughty but interesting things that Gabriel and Bundo did together along with fellow removers was to always remove one random box from the contents of each move. They’d share out the contents, and Gabriel catalogued them – over 200 boxes in total over their career. One of those boxes had contained a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Gabriel passed on to his German son, Christof, who called it Christofini. The dummy kept butting into Christof’s part of the narrative, which did give a slightly surreal edge to things.

I particularly loved reading about Gabriel and Bundo and their exploits through the years, lovable rogues both, always up for a chance to make a bit on the side or a game of cards. The sons’ stories weren’t as exciting in comparison, and as I read on, I did hope that they’d make progress on finding Gabriel, for at 473 pages, this is rather a long book. I won’t let on what finally happens, for this was a charming story told with humour, and you may want to find it out for yourself.  Despite its length, Punti has created some memorable characters in this debut novel and I enjoyed the travels and travails of Gabriel, his friends and extended family a great deal. (8.5/10)

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I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti, pub 25th April by Short Books, Trade paperback, 473 pages.

Another visual stunner from Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby – directed by Baz Luhrmann


The moment that Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway finally met Gatsby, when Leonardo Dicaprio turned around and smiled that smile, my heart did a little leap, and it confirmed for me that he was perfect for the role, and that this film was going to be totally worth it for me.

The story is framed by a narration by Carraway as his rehab doctor encourages him to write it all down after the end to that summer. Maguire plays the insider-outsider with either constant wide-eyes and goofy smile, or zonked out – still with those wide eyes but staring. Carey Mulligan as Daisy is all doe eyes, shallow and fun-loving, yet trembling and weak, showing us another side to this actress who wowed as the confident young lead of An Education.  Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who looks like a slightly ravaged Guy Pearce here, is suitably boorish as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan.

Co-starring with the principal actors is Luhrmann’s artistic vision. No-one does parties on film like Luhrmann, and the raves at Gatsby’s mansion are jaw-droppingly amazing, and here the mainly contemporary soundtrack with inclusions from Jay Z and Beyoncé works really well.

the-great-gatsby party

There are no musical set pieces as in Moulin Rouge though.  Here the music comes in little strains throughout, intertwining pop songs with jazz, blues, and notably Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

There was a pervading air of melancholy throughout and even when people were ostensibly happy, it was that kind of brittle happiness – except for the flashback of when Gatsby first met Daisy.  I can’t think of anyone else other than DiCaprio that could have played the title role – it’s his film.

Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is not subtle – at all!  
It won’t be for everyone – the critics didn’t really like it …
But I did!  

Most importantly, it made me want to re-read the novel – pronto. So, I’m just going to riffle my bookcase …

From the Silk Road to Norwood

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

lady cyclists guide 1It’s 1923. Evangeline English is accompanying her sister Lizzie as part of a Christian mission to Kashgar, in Western China on the ancient Silk Road route. Eva in turn is accompanied by her trusty bicycle. She keeps a diary about their expedition which she plans to publish on her return as a guide for lady cyclists.

The mission is led by the forceful Hatamen cigarette smoking Millicent, who with her suffragette-influenced mission style of is determined to bring some Moslem women under her umbrella, whatever the cost; and photographer Lizzie is under her spell. Things don’t start off well for them. Approaching the city, they find a woman in agony in childbirth by the side of the road. Millicent delivers the baby, but the mother dies, leading to the trio being put under house arrest for ‘murdering’ the unknown woman.  The baby girl is left with them, and it falls to Eva to look after it.

A lady Cyclist's guide to Kashgar

Time shifts to the present day, and we are now in South London with Frieda, an independent young woman, who one day has two surprises. She has an unexpected inheritance from an old lady to whom she is listed as next of kin by the Council. She also opens her front door to find a young Yemeni man sleeping on her doorstep. Tayeb is an illegal immigrant, and has had to make himself scarce from the flat he shares as the authorities are looking for him.  Frieda and Tayeb strike up a sort of friendship, and he agrees to help her sort out the flat of her unknown benefactor.

These two very different narratives twist around each other, gradually revealing Eva and Frieda’s stories, and edging slowly towards each other.  There are connections, but they’re not immediately obvious which keeps the reader guessing.

Often in dual narratives one story tends to dominate – this isn’t the case here.  Although initially Eva’s tale, told through her diaries, is totally absorbing due to its exotic location and the pioneering spirit of the women on their mission, the mysteries in Frieda’s life are equally compelling.  Both provide adventure tinged with tragedy, be it in the desert heat or the claustrophobic isolation of South London, and I enjoyed both.  A skilfully plotted and accomplished debut that made for an absorbing read.  (8/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further, please click below:
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury paperback, 384 pages.

On Conducting …

The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg

001I came across this book of my late mother’s this afternoon and thought I’d share it with you. This copy is rather dilapidated, having been liberated (withdrawn and sold) from Cannon Street Library many years ago. She used to go there during her lunchtimes, and brought countless books home that they were clearing out.

Its author, Schonberg was music critic for the New York Times, and he won a Pullitzer Prize in 1971 for his criticism. This book was published in 1967. It follows the development the role of the conductor from mere time-keeper to interpreter, from before Bach and Handel up to Leonard Bernstein and his contemporaries.

Wagner conducting (1863)

The first half essentially follows the composer as conductor of their own music mostly, and the musical world is full of rivalries – the straight-forward Berlioz described Wagner’s conducting thus: ‘Such a style is like dancing on a slack wire, sempre tempo rubato,’ and Wagner said of Berlioz who was conducting a Mozart symphony: ‘I… was amazed to find a conductor who was so energetic in the performance of his own compositions sink into the commonest rut of the vulgar time beater.’

In the chapter on Richard Strauss, a renowned cynic, we find out his tempi got faster and faster as he got older and more bored. Apparently at Bayreuth, he conducted the first act of Parsifal in 1h 35mins – Toscanini took 2h 2mins. Strauss wrote a flippant article that tickled me giving guidance for young conductors – I reproduce it for your amusement below:

‘Ten Golden Rules for the album of a Young Conductor’

  1. Remember you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
  2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.
  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
  6. If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
  7. It is not enought that you yourself should heard every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words they will go to sleep.
  8. Always accompany a singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*
  10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

* Today (1948) I should like to amend this as follows: Go twice as slowly (addressed to conductors of Mozart).

As Schonberg says, although tongue in cheek, there is an underlying truth behind most of the above.  Having played violin in many youth orchestras and into my twenties, I always found that the brass section attracted the most exuberantly confident (and good-looking) players!

The chapter on Furtwängler in the 1920s and 1930s was elucidating too. Schonberg writes …


Furtwängler’s beat was a phenomenon unduplicated before or since: a horror, a nightmare, to musicians. On the podium he lost himself. He would gesticulate, shout, sing, make faces, spit, stamp. Or he would close his eyes and make vague motions. … In the Berlin Philharmonic there was a standard joke: Q: How do you know when to come in on the opening bars of the Beethoven Ninth?  A: We walk twice around our chairs, count ten and then start playing. … Musicians had to watch his face rather than his baton. Furtwängler was fully conscious of the difficulties his beat gave musicians. It did not bother him. “Standardised technique creates in turn standardised art,” he would say.

We carry on through Beecham, Stokowski, Szell, Karajan and many others to Bernstein. Schonberg finishes his book by proposing some future candidates for conducting greatness, including Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel (whom my mother adored – he conducted the Philharmonia Chorus in which she sang many times), and Zubin Mehta.

Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

The last to be mentioned is the recently departed Colin Davis, of whom Schonberg says, his ‘conducting is marked by taste, strength and an eclectic approach characteristic of English magicians.’

I couldn’t agree more – Davis for me always achieved such a lovely string sound in particular, (well, I was a fiddle player), and always came across as such a nice man.

I really enjoyed this book, getting really into the personalities of all these great conductors.

P.S. For another interesting quotation on conducting an orchestra see my review of Frank Zappa’s memoir here.

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg – used copies available.

Benedict, you’re a very baaad man!


I couldn’t wait! Just back from the first screening (bar last night’s midnight one) at my local cinema of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second outing for the young classic Trek crew.

I’m not going to tell you any of the story except that Benedict Cumberbatch, with a spectacularly basso profundo voice, was truly wonderful as Kirk’s adversary. However everything else was in place – here are a few slightly cryptic notes:

  • The crew from the previous movie are all present and correct;
  • Kirk breaks the prime directive – again;
  • Uhura and Spock have sparks flying off them!
  • There are plenty of laughs;
  • Simon ‘Fat boy’ Pegg gets to do lots of running as Scotty;
  • The Enterprise gets shot up of course;
  • It’s no tribble at all for Bones;
  • Future adventures are (retrospectively) set up, and references abound;
  • Spock gets to be an action hero – he melds, he pinches … and he cries.

LOVED IT!!!  Want to see it again.