Penguin Fiction Showcase & a fangirl moment with William Gibson

penguinLast night I was privileged to be invited and able to attend Penguin’s General Fiction Showcase event at Foyles in London.

It was lovely to meet several good blogging friends again there – Sakura, Kim, Simon my Shiny pal, Simon S (good luck with the Green Carnation prize tonight) and Luci from Curious Book Fans. Knowing that several other blogging friends had been invited but were unable to go, we all vowed to think about having another book-bloggers meet next year … Suggestions please for venues!

Penguin, as always, had brought together a lovely band of authors to introduce and read from their new books to us – in this case, three established and three debut authors and six wonderful sounding books.

First came Claire Fuller – her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, sounds rather dark – starting in the mid 1970s when a survivalist father takes his eight year old daughter from London to a cabin in the middle of a forest in Europe telling her the world is disappeared. She is not seen again for nine years. Claire read a passage where they’d been looking for acorns, but the squirrels had got them all… I rather like forests in novels – I shall look forward to reading this one (out in February).

Next was Paul Murray who had such a hit with Skippy Dies a few years ago. He described his new novel The Mark and the Void as a banking comedy! He read a passage to us at breakneck speed complete with accents which had a Frenchman (the banker), a writer called Paul, an Australian and a Russian amongst others. It promises to be very funny (out in July).

Julia Rochester, another debut novelist, brought the first half to a close, reading from the start of her novel The House at the Edge of the World set in Devon, which starts with Morwenna witnessing her father’s death as he topples over the edge of a cliff while drunk and having a piss. It’s no comedy though – all about family and roots. (out in June).

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak began the second half, introducing us to the architect Sinan who designed most of Istanbul’s most iconic domes and structures in the sixteenth century. Her novel The Architect’s Apprentice tells his story through the eyes of those who worked for him. As at a previous event, she beguiled us with her mellifluous tones and philosophical take on this historical novel.

The last debut novelist of the evening was Emma Hooper, a Canadian who is also in a band. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is set in Saskatchewan – in the middle of Canada and eighty-two year old Etta decides to walk to the sea which she has never seen. You’re thinking a Canadian Harold Fry, right? However, this book promises something different and is laced with humour- the section she read us in which neighbour Russell who is on Etta’s trail stops at a diner to breakfast finding it is run by a ten-year-old girl and her little brother who does the dishes, was great fun, but I gather it’s not all so sunny. (Out in January).

The final author of the evening was William Gibson – yes that William Gibson! The one who created the cyberpunk genre of science fiction beginning with Neuromancer in the 1980s, and also being a founding father of steampunk with his wonderful novel, co-authored with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine. Over the years I have read and loved quite a few of his novels, but not managed any more since I started this blog.

His more recent books have tended to be set closer to the present, and his latest is (partially) no exception to that. The Peripheral has a double time-line (one near-future and one way in the future), Gibson read a chapter from the near-future one which featured a typical Friday night at a pub in a Southern town ravaged by unemployment and disenfranchised youths which he described as being ‘Like Winter’s Bone, but with better cell-phones’. Being a huge fan of Daniel Woodrell’s novels (see here) I knew what he meant.

P1020255 (739x800)Now, I don’t recall ever having seen an author’s photo or potted biog of Gibson  – I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my head I imagined him as a well-built Californian in his say mid fifties. He is actually 66, from South Carolina, has a real drawl and is very tall and very slim.

In my fangirl moment with him after the reading – he was the perfect Southern gentleman and I can’t wait to read The Peripheral (out now).

Thank you to Penguin for a lovely evening.

I’m taking the TBR Double Dog Dare…

For the past few years I’ve signed up to take part in James’s TBR Dare.

tbr-dare-2014Hosted by James of James Reads Books and featuring his beloved pooch Dakota in the graphic, the TBR Dare is very simple –

Read only from your TBR from Jan 1 until April 1.

You can make your own exceptions for book groups, scheduled reviews etc. reserved books at the library etc.

You don’t even have to stop acquiring books – you’re just not allowed to read books that come into your house from Jan 1st until the dare is up. You could go out on December 31st and have a splurge on new books which would be valid to read during the dare.

You don’t even have to do the full three months – just set a target and enjoy revisiting your TBR piles, or in my case, mountains.  James doesn’t like calling it a challenge – and I’m all for that – I nearly always fail in those – so it’s a dare.

This year I’m having to make a different exception because of my involvement with Shiny New Books which, by its nature, will require me to read some new books. However, as they will appear on a different website, I feel justified in saying that here at Annabel’s House of Books I am aiming to go the full three months reading only from my TBR (except for Book Group choices).

If you want to join in, head over to James’s TBR Dare page and sign up. Your TBR piles will love you for it.

Catching up … plus more stocking fillers

It’s been so busy this past week and weekend, I didn’t have time to post or read much.

  • I’ve been preparing new pages for the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweenie issue – there are some goodies! (Coming to you on Thursday December 4th – click on the picture in the sidebar to sign up for the newsletter).
  • Mary BerryOn Saturday, I was helping out at my daughter’s school Christmas fair where they had managed to get Mary Berry to come for the morning to sign books! I didn’t get to talk to her at all – As fast as I could unpack boxes of Mary’s books they sold! I did manage to send my daughter up with my copy of her autobiography to get signed. She must have signed steadily for about three hours – and then she went off to be a special guest in the audience on Strictly (Wasn’t BM’s ‘duet’ with Satchmo excruciating on the results show!).
  • Then it’s the school where I work’s turn this weekend – and with the boys’ stalls tending to have moving parts to win huge amounts of Haribos – the boy version of Whack-a-mole is always popular for instance! – there’s a lot of Health & Safety to double-check (part of my role).
  • We’re also at the start of party season, and I had my first pre-Christmas outing last Friday – Yay! A school staff social – we all went to a big pub in the middle of nowhere (relatively – the nearest habitation must be at least ten minutes walk), and had a great Thai meal! This Oxfordshire pub has a Thai chef and it was only £15. Strangely, on the corner of the lane up to the pub was a lonely kebab van – again in the middle of nowhere. After the meal on our way back (not even late), there was a crowd of people hanging out there … we didn’t stop.

However, I have managed to find some more bookish stocking fillers for you…

kurieshiFirst is A Theft: My Con Man – a little pocket-sized essay from Hanif Kureishi which recounts the true story of how Kureishi was robbed of his life savings by a con man accountant. He uses his own experience to comment on the value of money and his opinions of the financial world.

It’s £4.99 – so not cheap for 48 pages, but I couldn’t resist – it’s fascinating stuff and new out last week. Buy at Amazon UK.

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lotteryPublished back in June, Penguin Modern Classics brought out an edition of one of Shirley Jackson’s most iconic and terrifying short stories – The Lottery – as a pamphlet. If you can find it, it’s £0.99 but with P&P added it becomes rather over-priced for 16 pages. It would fit in with a Christmas card though…

Instead, you might prefer to give an anthology with other Shirley Jackson stories in as well – try this one, again from Penguin Modern Classics: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson – buy at Amazon UK.

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Listellany is a little hardback that has grown out of John Rentoul’s column in the Independent newspaper in which he compiles top tens based on suggestions and contributions from his readers and twitter.

The lists, which cover such topics as ‘Upbeat songs that tell a sad story’ (cue Girlfriend in a Coma by The Smiths and many more), the most beautiful railway journeys in the UK, and words which used to mean their opposites, are pure opinion – but great for post-postprandial debate – Just start with the list of the Worst Beatles songs and go from there!

I got sent a copy of this book by the publisher, but being a trivia fan have enjoyed flicking through it.

Pub October 2014 by Elliot and Thompson. Hardback 128 pages. Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top Tens, from Politics to Pop – Buy on Amazon UK

Not one, but two reworked fairy tales illustrated by Chris Riddell

I love Chris Riddell’s illustrations and children’s books. Amazingly he has only had one post to himself since I started this blog (see here), although he has featured in several others. Even here, he will be sharing this post with the two authors of some newly published reworked fairy tales…

I had put these two books to the top of my Christmas wishlist, but when I saw them both in my favourite bookshop, I just had to have them there and then. Consequently, I just had to read them instantly too. I shall re-read them at leisure, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts with you now as both of these books will make wonderful Christmas presents. I won’t hold out on you any longer – meet the first…

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 1 This slim near-A4-sized volume is beautiful from the off. Through the rose-laden translucent dust-jacket you can see a ‘sleeping beauty’. Open it up and the end-papers resemble one of the landscapes with kingdoms divided by mountains in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Turn to the start of the story proper, and you feel you’re in The Hobbit – for there are dwarfs who are going under the impassable mountains between these lands.

The dwarfs (never dwarves), surface and find an inn, only to find that a sickness is creeping upon the land, sending more and more to sleep every day. The inn folk tell the dwarfs the tale of the princess who was cursed to prick her finger and sleep forever by “one of those forest witches, driven to the margins a thousand years ago, and a bad lot.” They compete with each other to embellish the tale, before saying “If you make it through the roses, she’ll be waiting for you. She’s old as the hills, evil as a snake, all malevolence and magic and death.”

sleeper spindle 2*** Slight Spoiler Alert***

The dwarfs visit the Queen of this land – who turns out to be Snow White, although she is never named thus. (“Names are in short supply in this telling.” says Gaiman’s text cryptically.) She was due to be married, but realising the threat of the creeping sleepiness, postpones the wedding and sets off with the dwarfs to sort it out.

Much has been made of the fact that it is another woman that rescues the princess and that human males are definitely sidelined in this tale. It’s not a gay version of the story though, it’s about sisterhood. The Queen is an independent and intelligent young woman who has plenty of courage – she reminded me of no-one so much as a female version of Aragorn!  I loved this modern spin on the old stories.

*** End of Slight Spoiler Alert***

Riddell’s women are characterised by their brows and stares; the other characters go from cheerful groteseques to skull-like gargoyles. The detail in the black and white drawings is incredible, with gold highlights here and there. They remind me of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur but there’s more in them – I loved the way Riddell did the Queen’s hair!

Although this book is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, surely it’s aimed at grown-ups who still love fairy-tales?

One of those stories for ages 9 to 99. I loved it! (10/10)

… and this brings me to the other retelling …

Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales – The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Trickster Tale Pied Piper

Initially I wasn’t so sure about this one. Gaiman is a known entity and I knew he wouldn’t disappoint, but the bookshop know me and knew I’d love it too. Although I only skimmed Brand’s first memoir My Bookywook, I do have a soft spot for him as a reformed character these days and I think he has found a niche in which to excel as an author here.

Indeed I’d go so far as to say that he out-does Roald Dahl in his portrayal of the awful folk of the town of Hamelin and their ghastly children – far worse than Veruca Salt and her ilk!

You all know the story of the town that was plagued by rats and the mysterious piper who arrives and deals with the rats, before taking nearly all the townsfolk’s children in payment too.

That’s all here, but again, with the exception of crippled Sam and his mother, all the characters are completely horrid – from Dave the Sexist to Fat Bob and the Mayor – a woman who looks like a young Maggie Thatcher! As for the rats, who gatecrash ‘The Most Gorgeous Child in Hamelin’ pageant:

These lawless, filthy, scumbag rats were rearranging Hamelin with nothing in mind but mad rat urges.
They used their rat egg-hole-poo-gun-machine-bums to rat-a-tat-tat the pageant into a dung-covered muck hurricane.
They used their vicious little-lellow claws to rip up all the posters.
They smashed shop windows using stones and sticks that were lying around from when Fat Bob and his gang had been bullying Sam earlier.

This quotation is written on a puddle of rat-poo in the book. Riddell has been encouraged to match Brand’s scatalogical language in his grotesque drawing – the combination is absolutely hilarious. The big format again let’s Riddell show all the detail, this time in full colour.

Pied PiperAnd then we meet the piper…
He is, as you can see, a homage to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, a real ‘droog’.

There is a full-page illustration homing in on one of his eyes and it is quite chilling. In fact, he has one brown and one blue – like David Bowie and I can quite imagine this piper playing something Ziggy-ish.

Brand’s book is really funny and utterly filthy – but only in a pooey way!  The moral of the story is kept in tact and makes the whole a delight.  I want more!  (10/10)

Two re-told fairy tales – two different authors – one illustrator who achieves two very different styles wonderfully = two hits! If you’re a fairy-tale fan, you know you want these for Christmas too!

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Source: I bought my copies from an independent bookseller.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sleeper and the Spindleby Neil Gaiman. Pub Oct 2014 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Hardback, 72 pages.
Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales: The Pied Piper of Hamelinby Russell Brand. Pub Nov 2014 by Canongate Books. Hardback, 128 pages.

Short but not so sweet – The Galley Beggar Ghosts

I know it’s not quite December, but I am busy Christmas shopping – and between review posts for the next couple of weeks, I shall be recommending some books and bookish things that make ideal Christmas presents and stocking fillers. We’ll start with some stocking fillers…


Galley Beggar Ghosts

galley-beggar-ghosts-mulitpackThose lovely people at Galley Beggar Press in Norwich sent me one of their little series of single short stories all about ghosts, as a thank you for using their on-line shop earlier this year.

The four pocket-sized little paperbacks are beautifully produced with stiff card covers. They cost £3.50 each – available on-line or in good bookshops.  On-line, you can also buy the fourpack for £12. (+P&P)

There are four to choose from:
The Eyes by Edith Wharton
Honeysuckle Cottage by P.G.Wodehouse
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lost Journey by A.L.Barker

I got sent Lost Journey by A.L.Barker – an English novelist who was new to me, but apparently her novel John Brown’s Body was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1970; she died in 2002. She wrote many short story collections from the late 1940s through to the end of the twentieth century.

Having polished off and much enjoyed this creepy little number in bed this morning, I’d be very keen to read some more of her, especially after seeing this quote by Rebecca West:

“I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment.”

Lost journey is about a young (one assumes) man who takes pity on a voluptuous young woman pushing a cart up the hill in which sits a legless (no legs, not drunk) old woman. Gerda claims to the cousin of Robert Dudley, lover of Elizabeth I, and she wants to die. With the help of Lalla and the narrator, the cruel old crone might be able to enact her plan…

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_LOSTGEN-500x345For more literary stocking fillers, see their sets of postcards – there are several designs to pick from and they come neatly packaged in a wallet. £3.50 per set of 6 (+P&P).

The postcards are what I bought loads of for my blog’s 6th birthday giveaway.


Although I received a free book from them, I have no connection with Galley Beggar Press other than previously having been a satisfied customer!


An Evening with David Mitchell

Last night I went to see David Mitchell in conversation with Mark Thornton from Mostly Books at the theatre in David’s Alma Mater – Abingdon School. The 400+ tickets available for the event sold out in just a few days! The town and school alike, are proud to claim him as one of our own, (although he was born in Wiltshire).

P1020224 (800x600)It was Mark’s biggest hosting event yet and he was terribly nervous beforehand, but he had done his homework and he did brilliantly introducing Mitchell as having been ‘fast-tracked into becoming a National Treasure.’

Cue photo of David as a pupil at Abingdon in very big and  geeky glasses, he admits to being a swot as well as being really into debating.

mitchell bookThe two settled down into a great discussion about Mitchell’s new book – Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, which is a collection of his favourite columns from his regular appearances in The Observer newspaper each weekend. He has written the columns for six years now and finds it a very different medium to write for.  You have no audience in the room to laugh, so he can’t build up steam into a rant in the same way that he would on TV, having to be more careful in choice of words. However, he loves the real newspaper medium – and how his column is placed in the newspaper which people actually buy, complementing the news; viewed on-line, it can be taken out of context – hence he doesn’t bother reading the comments.  One of the columns they touched upon, which I shall look forward to reading, is all about Madame Tussauds, and how disappointing the whole thing is.

Once the floor was opened to questions, he was asked about all aspects of his life and career, from the whereabouts of his ‘travelling dressing-gown’ (a Would I Lie to You TV panel show joke), to whether he would ever go on Celebrity Mastermind (No – because he wouldn’t want not to live up to expectations) and what he and his wife (Victoria Coren Mitchell) disagree on – basically Science Fiction which she doesn’t get at all. Then the headmistress of Abingdon read out a rather good review of Mitchell as Friar Lawrence in a school production of Romeo & Juliet from the school archives.

Interestingly, when asked about actually writing the columns, he confided that although he likes the discipline, it’s usually very last minute. He longs for the day when he can find an angle on a news story to write about on Tuesday, think about it on Wednesday, and polish off the writing on Thursday by mid-morning.

P1020234 (800x600)One of the final questions asked for some advice to the young people in the audience. He said he was lucky enough to be able to know what he wanted to do, and he said if you are in that position to give it ten years.

Later he signed books for everyone – and it felt like nearly the whole audience had bought one! Being part of the bookselling team for the night, I was near the end of the very long queue which stretched way out of the theatre door at the start.

P1020235 (800x600)Eventually it was my turn, and Mark, who knows virtually everyone in the audience bigged me up to him as a blogger and one of the helpers, so David inscribed ‘Thanks for your help’ in my copy of the book and posed for the near-obligatory photo below.

The partisan audience were all fans and helped make it a great evening. He was a lovely chap – full of natural wit, but also able to talk seriously when he wanted to (although he clearly does to finish all comments on a joke).  Definitely a new national treasure in the making.

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To explore further please click below (affiliate link):
On Amazon: Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life by David Mitchell, Guardian Faber books, November 2014, Hardback, 336 pages.

Or Mostly Books has signed copies in the shop… ideal Christmas presents…

“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

A new historical saga – not for me…

The Brethren by Robert Merle


I love the idea of getting stuck into reading an historical saga, I really do. I know I can do sagas spread over many novels – just not historical ones it seems. In particular, I started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles with good intentions here but never progressed onto the second volume properly (I will one day though – I promise – for I loved Lymond as a character). Actually, I’ve can’t remember another historical series that I’ve followed through – ever.

Standalone historical novels are a different matter and I’ve read and enjoyed many over the years although I admit that books set in pre-Victorian milieux are not a genre of fiction that I read regularly. Also, I think I’m fed up of the Tudors which is why Wolf Hall etc are still sitting on my shelves.

I did think I’d have another try with The Brethren – the first volume in Robert Merle’s Fortunes of France saga – bestsellers on the continent, and now translated by T.Jefferson Kline for Pushkin Press. The Brethren was published in 1977; Merle’s thirteen volume saga took him 26 years to complete, the last volume appearing just before his death in 2004.

Périgord in the middle of the sixteenth century is our setting (Mary Tudor is on the English throne). This part of France has the feel of border country – the reach of the King is limited in this wild region. Two veteran soldiers, who adopt each other as true brothers, arrive to make their home in a run-down castle, for which they outbid the neighbouring landowner who had hoped to win it for a song.

The Brethren as they are known, set about working their lands and renovating the castle giving employment to many. They are seen as fair, but tinged by the new faith of the Huguenots, which is not relieved when the younger of the two Jeans marries the beautiful Catholic daughter of a local baron – and there will always be tension between Jean and Isabelle over it.

Civil war is looming between the two religions … and that is where I left the novel at about page 80.

I didn’t warm to the style of writing and don’t know whether that is due to Merle or the translator. I just found it all very dry indeed and had a sinking feeling that it would be all too much about the soldiering, and not enough about the brothers and their families. The introduction was very slow and unlike Lymond, I didn’t get a feel for either of the Jeans at all – they were just too aloof and, dare I say it, too good. If I’m to invest in a reading a saga, I need interesting exciting characters. I’m sure they will have their day later but I have too many other books to read to give them more time.  DNF

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Source: Publisher – Thank you (and sorry!). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Brethren (Fortunes of France)by Robert Merle, trans T.Jefferson Kline. Pub Sept 2014 by Pushkin Press, Trade paperback, 416 pages.

It was surprising how many of us had a Jean Brodie in our schooldays…

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

primeofmissjeanbrodie-195x300Published in 1961, Spark’s delicious tale of a teacher who lives vicariously through her selected pupils was our book group’s choice this month.

Our discussions were wide-ranging, but we started off by chatting about how real Miss Brodie was – and it turned out that most of us – certainly the older members of our group who were educated in the later 60s through 80s had had a teacher at some stage that refused to conform, one that strayed off the curriculum and was a source of inspiration, or maybe ridicule amongst others for it; however none were quite as much of a character as Miss Jean Brodie.

This short novel tells the story of a small group of girls selected to be Miss Brodie’s for what would be year 6 these days – the last year of their junior education, (this was another surprise to us – the girls appear old for their years on the page, yet they are only ten when the story begins). Miss Brodie’s educational methods are unconventional to say the least. A Calvinist, she eschews mathematics in favour of classical studies, art history, her own life experiences in love and travels and her flirtation with fascism – she admires Mussolini and his black-shirted men (it’s 1936). She wishes to lead them out (from the Latin verb educere) into the world, she believes ‘Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science’.  In one of her first lessons to the girls, they are walking past the headmistress’ study and she stops to consider a poster on the wall:

It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words ‘Safety First’.
‘This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister at the last election and got out again ere long,’ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan”Safety First”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.’
This was the first intimation, to the girls, of an odds between Miss Brodie and the rest of the teaching staff.

The school board, of course, would love to be able to let her go, but need an excuse and evidence to proceed.

The narrative flashes back and forwards – between that year Miss Brodie taught them, their subsequent years at senior school and later, after her death. Early in the narrative we learn that one of the girls betrayed her – but it is not until later that it becomes clear which one it was.

The girls are all given labels by Spark, from Rose who was ‘famous for sex’ and Eunice who was a cartwheeler supreme, to Mary McGregor who was the scapegoat of the set. Brodie picks Sandy however to be her special confidante. Sandy is an imaginative girl, and is always daydreaming, adding herself into her favourite novels – she’s in love with Alan Breck in Stevenson’s Kidnapped. She and Jenny also write stories in secret about Miss Brodie.

Spark cleverly reinforces each of the girls’ prime characteristics all the way through the novel – you will never read the name of Rose without being reminded of what she is famous for – and Spark, who never wastes her words makes us wonder each time she does this how the girls will turn out – a clever device of reinforcement.

Beryl Cook BrodieThe copy I read from was the Folio Society’s edition, which has been illustrated by the wonderful Beryl Cook. Famous for her rounded ladies with big hands and noses, nevertheless she has taken all the details from the text and captured the characters perfectly, (right).

Brodie is famously Bohemian in her love-life. She’s the apex of a triangle with the one-armed art teacher Teddy Lloyd (a Roman Catholic, married with six children) and the singing teacher Mr Lowther.  Both love her, but she only has eyes for Mr Lloyd, and apart from one stolen kiss (witnessed by one of the girls), that love is never requited. She adopts Mr Lowther, but just ends up using him and rejects him. Instead, she urges one of the girls, now teenagers, to have an affair with Mr Lloyd so she can get her fix vicariously.

She has a fondness for quoting from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott during her lessons, which is a loose retelling of the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, who dies of her unrequited love for Lancelot – how fitting, we thought.

Although short, this novel is wonderfully complex, as well as funny and sad (especially for poor Mary McGregor). It made for a really good book group discussion about sex and politics and sexual politics for that matter. We also enjoyed reminiscing about our school days. It’s not my personal favourite of Spark’s novels (that’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye), but it certainly is la crème de la crème.  (9.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark. Paperback, other editions available.


The Intruders were in my TBR!…

The Intruders by Michael Marshall


British author Marshall began writing stylish SF novels as Michael Marshall Smith – winning the Philip K Dick Award for his debut Only Forward, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for years! After a few more, he dropped the ‘Smith’ and moved into the world of creepy thrillers winning plaudits for The Straw Men and its follow-ups.

I was spurred on to read this one from my shelves by its current TV adaptation. Having seen the first two creepy parts last week, I decided to find out what goes on to happen on the page first rather than the screen. These episodes actually mirrored the novel very closely and now I know…

The prologue starts with the doorbell ringing at the Anderson home, Gina is at home with her son:

She flipped the porch light on. It showed a man in his mid-fifties, with short, dark hair, sallow skin in flat planes around his face. His eyes seemed dark too, almost black. They gave no impression of depth, as if they had been painted on his head from the outside.
‘I’m looking for William Anderson,’ he said.
‘He’s not here right now. Who are you?’
‘Agent Shepherd,’ the man said, and then paused, for a deep cough. ‘Mind if I come inside?’
Gina did mind, but he just stepped up onto the porch and walked right past her and into the house.

No prizes for working out that Gina and her son will soon be dead.

Jack Whalen was a cop in LA. Was – he left in undisclosed circumstances, moving with his wife to a little town in Washington state inland from Seattle. Jack is now an author, first book published – second one not yet in his head. Amy works for an advertising company in Seattle and occasionally has to stop over in the city. The weirdness starts when Amy is away on a trip and Jack receives a call from a taxi driver on Amy’s phone. She’d left it in the cab. Jack tells the driver to take it to her hotel where he’ll get paid.

Jack rings the hotel to find out that she’s not there, no reservation. He arranges to collect the phone and goes into Seattle. Thinking to surprise her at work, he finds she’s not there either.  Uh-oh – is she with someone else?

Cut to the other main strand of the story. Ten year old Madison is sitting on the shore at her family’s beach house, when a man in black arrives. ‘Can you keep a secret?’ he asks.  Soon, she goes missing …

Later on, getting slowly drunk at a bar, Jack is examining Amy’s phone. There are loads of weird texts on it. He’s suspicious – meeting up with the taxi driver, he asks him to take him where he dropped off Amy – but they end up in a fight with some heavies who don’t want them there.

When he gets back home, Amy’s there. She seems to have an explanation that fits for where she’s been. Life carries on.  Except that Amy is different. She suddenly likes jazz where she hated it before; she was always a coffee drinker, and now prefers tea.

Then Gary Fisher comes back into Jack’s life. They were at school together, Gary is now a lawyer, and after seeing Jack’s book, he gets in contact with Jack to ask for his help.

By this stage I had many questions: Has Amy been brainwashed? What came over Madison to make her ‘run away’? What is her connection to Agent Shepherd? Who is Bill Anderson? Is any of this linked? Is Jack just paranoid and jealous? What is Jack’s back story?  At least on that front he starts to explain(!):

I was on the job for ten years. I turned up and did what I was paid to do, entering people’s lives only when they’d begun to go wrong. after the God of Bad Things had decided to pay a call. In the end my own life started to skew, as policemen’s lives do. The problem with being a cop is you wander into the field of play of the God of Bad Things so often that you wind up permanently on his radar – as a meddler, a spoiler, someone who has tried to mitigate his attempts to stir disappointment and pain into the lives of humankind. The God of Bad Things is a shitty little god, but He has a great memory and a long attention span. Once you’ve caught his eye you’re there for good. He becomes you own personal imp, perching on your shoulder and shitting down your back.

It carries on getting creepier and creepier. Naturally, the book’s title and its tagline ‘they’re already inside’ imply some horror scenario to come and I can assure you that there is plenty. Who are they? Even after the big reveal towards the end of the book, there is a neat little sting in the tail. I daren’t say more in case any of you are watching the TV series.

I found Jack a difficult character to sympathise with at all. At the start, he has compartmentalised his life, shutting off the bit that was a policeman – but once a cop, always a cop – and he was one with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, remaining in uniform. It seemed unlikely that a high flyer like Amy would fall for a beat cop – meanwhile, Amy is notable by her absence for most of the novel.

I also felt that Madison was largely extraneous to the main plot – she only has a relevance to the man in black, Shepherd. Whether he’s actually an agent, a hit-man or plain psychopath, Shepherd is by far the most interesting character!

The TV series was made by BBC America, and has two Brits starring – John Simm as Jack, and James Frain as Shepherd; Amy is played by Mira Sorvino. It has a noirish feel, with lots of night-time shots and certainly feeds on paranoia and brings the conspiracy theories to the front – although we have no idea what they are! It’s settling in to be good and dark and confusing, but now 3 episodes in (Mondays 9pm, BBC2) so you’ll need to catch up via iPlayer.

This novel was an good introduction to Marshall’s chiller output. Reading the reviews, there seems to be a consensus that it’s not his best, but I although I found the characters mostly aloof and hard to engage with, the mystery did keep me reading, so it was quite compulsive in that respect – like Twin Peaks without the funny bits. I shall look forward to reading The Straw Men which is also on my shelves. (7/10)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Intruders by Michael Marshall, 2007. Harper paperback 496 pages.
The Straw Men (2002)
Only Forward as Michael Marshall Smith (1994)