The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

The Carnegie Medal Longlist 2015

The books longlisted for the 2015 CILIP Carnegie Medal were announced a couple of days ago. The CILIP Carnegie Medal is awarded annually by CILIP for an outstanding book for children. (CILIP is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.) As usual, many schools will be shadowing the awards, especially once the shortlist is announced on March 17th. The Medal will finally be awarded on June 22nd. Does the fact that the shadowing process appears to be mostly undertaken by years 6, 7 & 8 (10-13yrs) mean that the trend towards giving the Medal to books for older children will continue?

Call me a cynic, but there some wonderful books in the list to explore. As always there is a real mixture, and it will be interesting to see which way it goes. There was much controversy over the bleakness of the 2014 winner – The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (wonderful, but so bleak – read my review here). What will come from this year’s crop.

Here’s the longlist – I’ve read a couple of them, and have six others on my shelves already.

My Brother’s Shadow by Tom Avery (Andersen Press)

Us Minus Mum by Heather Butler (Little Brown, Young Readers)

year of the ratWhen Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury)

Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

The Company of Ghosts by Berlie Doherty (Andersen Press)

The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books) – my review for Shiny New Books here

Tinder by Sally GardnerTinder by Sally Gardner (author) and David Roberts (illustrator) (Orion Children’s Books) – on my shelf.

Monkey and Me by David Gilman (Templar)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children’s Books)

The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan Children’s Books)

More-Than-ThisBuffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman (Walker Books)

Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis (Oxford University Press)

The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (Usborne Books)

Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan (Walker Books)

More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker Books) – on my shelf.

picture me goneClose Your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls (Marion Lloyd Books) – on my shelf.

Trouble by Non Pratt (Walker Books) – on my shelf.

Picture Me by Meg Rosoff (Penguin Books) - My review for Shiny New Books here.

Smart: a Mysterious Crime, a Different Detective by Kim Slater (Macmillan Children’s Books) – on my shelf.

grasshopper-jungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Electric Monkey) – on my shelf.

Do share your reactions to the list?
Have you read any of them?
Which should I add to my own YA reading list?

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

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Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.



Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

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Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

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Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part One – the Shiny Edit…

hollyThis year for the first time, I’ve split my best of list in two. Having read around 130 books this year, there are too many to feature in just one post and there is an obvious split – today’s first part will feature those books that I’ve reviewed over at Shiny New Books

Forgive me for continually banging the drum, but I’m inordinately proud of Shiny and I am immensely grateful to all the lovely bloggers, friends, authors, translators, publishers who have written reviews and features for us. Special thanks to my three co-editors: Victoria, Simon and Harriet.

Tomorrow’s list will feature my favourite books this year reviewed on this blog, which includes many titles not published this year. 

But first over to the Shiny Edit! The links will take you over to my full reviews:

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Best (Auto)biography

bedsit disco queen

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey writes beautifully about life, love and the music business but does it quietly with warmth, wit and wonder at the good luck she’s had along the way. I loved this book so much, that sharing a maiden surname, I wish I was related to her!

Best YA Read for Adults Too

picture me gonePicture me Gone by Meg Rosoff

This novel about a girl and her father who go on holiday to visit his best friend only to find him missing is an understated novel, with a teenager as its reliable narrator who discovers that it’s the adults who are unreliable. Gently told, there are no big shocks but it reveals a lot about how we learn to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

Best Coming of Age

american sycamoreAmerican Sycamore by Karen Fielding.

A tale of siblings growing up by the banks of the Suequehanna river in north-eastern USA. Billy Sycamore’s life may start off as a modern day Huck Finn but something terrible happens that affects his whole life and family. Narrated by his young sister, it is both funny and sad, and has some transcendant turns of phrase.  Loved it.

She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

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Best Woods

into the treesInto the Trees by Robert Williams

Forests play a huge part in mythology, yet can a modern family find their own enchanted life living in one?  The very first paragraph of this novel tells us that the forest may be a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. This is a powerful drama of families, finding a life-work balance, true friendship … and trees.

Best Totally Un-PC Book

BonfiglioliDon’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Imagine a 1970s Jeeves and Wooster crossed with James Bond, an upped double-entendres quotient and totally un-PC and you’ve got the Charlie Mortdecai books, of which this is the first. Written in the late 1970s, these capers narrated by the art-dealing aristo are great fun.

 

A Quick Mention for These Two

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

The former a drama about child abduction and growing up on Anglesey in Wales, the latter an eco-thriller set on an island paradise that is ‘full of win’. Totally different, but both fab.

… And Finally, My ‘Shiny’ Book of the Year

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven
by Emily St.John Mandel.

I loved this elegant dystopian novel that takes place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic and following the links from former lives that persist between some of its survivors.

Awful things happen, yet seen through the journey of the Travelling Symphony – a collective of musicians and actors who struggle to keep the canon alive – there is positivity instead of despair for the fate of mankind.

Speculative fiction is possibly my favourite sub-genre of reading and this book is superb.

Read my review at SNBks.

 

 

 

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.

They were soldiers…

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Brian Murdoch

all-quiet-on-the-western-front This remarkable novel about young German soldiers in WWI was our book group’s read for August; I had pushed strongly for a WWI-related choice for the month of the 100th anniversary of the war’s start. Several of us had already read some of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but none had read this book. Indeed, despite having owned a copy for years, I don’t think I would ever have got around to reading it – now, I am so glad I did.

All Quiet (as I shall abbreviate it to) was published in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they denounced and burned copies of it as being anti-German. Remarque went to Switzerland, and in 1938 the Nazis withdrew his German citizenship. In 1939, with help from Marlene Dietrich, he got a US visa just before war broke out in Europe again and, ending up in Hollywood a film was made of the novel just a few years after that.

Remarque was sixteen when WWI started and was called up two years later. He survived Passchendaele and was later wounded, spending the rest of the war in hospital, then serving there. It is fair to assume that All Quiet reflects many of his own experiences as a young soldier for it is remarkable in its honesty.

The novel starts with a band of young soldiers getting a belly full of food for a change. We soon read that they had been sent up the line with 150 men but less than 80 returned – so they got double rations. These young men are already hardened survivors.

It moves on to tell us how a group of young students, barely nineteen years old had signed up in a romantic fit of nationalism, urged on by their tutor:

We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealized, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.

We all now know what happened, and how the lives of millions of young men were wasted in WWI. There are scenes of real horror in the novel: a memorable one is where Paul, the narrator, is hiding in a cemetery under bombardment, surrounded by flying bits of already dead bodies, an arm hangs from a tree. Then there are the scenes in the hospital, where the surgeons couldn’t cope and any serious wound or large dose of gas became a death sentence.

The irony of the book’s title (originally Im Western nichts neues – In the West, nothing is new) is renewed afresh with each bombardment and slaughter. There is one scene where the soldiers acknowledge that surely the French feel the same way about their country, and they wonder why are they doing this. The soldiers in All Quiet could have been from any of the nations involved – all their experiences were similar.

As you’d expect, the cameraderie that grows between the soldiers is touching, but at the front there has to be an element of self-preservation in order to survive. This may mean killing the opposition, or escaping being mown down oneself. As Paul says:

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Yet amongst all the sturm und drang there are some moments of pure comedy – the soldiers pull their latrines round in a circle so they can play cards in the middle, and this which must have inspired Black Adder…

The recruit pulls a face. ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening.’

Baldrick!  And that neatly brings me to the one point that several of our book group made in our discussions – Since we (or some of us) had read Birdsong or The Regeneration Trilogy, and seen Black Adder Goes Forth, it felt as if this novel was just another war novel, even not quite as good – but of course it is the original that inspired all the others!

Personally, this was another Moby Dick book for me – i.e. a classic that I’m so glad I finally read and saw how it has inspired and been referenced in so many other places; All Quiet is much more readable than Moby though. As the first great anti-war novel it is a compulsive read – I thoroughly enjoyed it as did our book group – it also generated some excellent discussion. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Pub 1929. Vintage paperback translated by Brian Murdoch, 224 pages.

A new bunch of Shiny New Book Reviews…

SNB logo tinyThe Inbetweeny issue 2a of Shiny New Books is available from today, with 22 new reviews and features, which includes nine, plus one joint article by me!!! Thus having contributed nearly half an issue (although I didn’t read as much as my lovely co-editors for the main Issue 2), I feel I deserve a bit of a plug, forgive me for being so indulgent.

A pair close to my heart are my review of Bethan Roberts’ fab new novel about a child abduction and Anglesey Mother Island and my accompanying short interview with her. You can also read my report of an evening with Bethan in Abingdon a few weeks ago here.

I’ve done my Director’s Cuts to several reviews from this blog of books now out in paperback: The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (loving that tinted version of the cover for the paperback), Gossip by Beth Gutcheon and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies.

I’m going to do just one more plug now before saving the rest for another post…

bright_moon_003zA new to me paperback review is my one of A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson.

A very black comedy, it has a comedy anti-hero you’ll grow to laugh with rather than laugh at and a psychopathic villain who is the nastiest I’ve read for a long time. Set in Venezuela, it is a brilliant debut novel and it has one of the best descriptive phrases I’ve read at the end of the first paragraph: ‘The sunset was coronary.’

Highly recommended if you like your comedy black and a bit un-PC, as I do.

An evening with Bethan Roberts

It was off to my favourite place in Abingdon (Mostly Books, where else!) on Thursday for an evening with one of the town’s favourite authors – Bethan Roberts. Born and bred in Abingdon, it was Bethan’s third visit to the bookshop, and for those of us who’ve been to see her talk each time, it’s like meeting an old friend – she remembers everyone. There was also a good turn-out from her friends and family, so it’s always a bit of a homecoming for Bethan, who now lives in Brighton.

mother islandThis time she was here to talk about her fourth novel, the newly published Mother Island. (I will be reviewing it for Shiny New Books in our mid-August inbetweeny issue, together with an extended interview.) Bethan’s third novel My Policeman, featuring a love triangle in 1950s Brighton was stunningly good, making me weep towards the end and was my ‘best three hankie book’ of 2012, (my review here) so I had really looking forward to her latest.

In introducing Mother Island, Bethan gave us her sales pitch: She said she had nailed a basic description of the book early on – ‘It’s about a nanny who steals a child!’ – so if you like psychological thrillers – this book is for you. It’s also about Anglesey, where her dad grew up, a beautiful, mysterious and difficult place – so if you like scenery and bridges – this book is for you. It’s also about motherhood and post-natal depression, art and life-drawing – so if you like reading about any of them – this book is for you. She admitted she felt uneasy about the thrillerish nature of the basic premise, as the novel is about so much more than this.

Maggie is Nula’s cousin, and nanny to toddler Samuel. But there is history between the two women, going back to when Maggie was a teenager, living in Anglesey and Nula and her father came to stay for the summer. I won’t say more for now…

20140731_194657_resizedBethan read to us from the prologue, in which Maggie actually abducts the little boy, followed by conversation with shop-owner Mark and questions from the audience. Mark asked if Bethan was worried about the book being marketed as psycho-nanny, and what did Bethan’s childminder think of it?  Bethan had been worried, but her part-time nanny had read the book and was OK with it – phew!

They also discussed Bethan’s move of publisher from Serpent’s Tail to Chatto & Windus for My Policeman. Bethan said that Serpent’s Tail had been, and still are, wonderful for her first two novels, but their editing process was short, and she felt that to improve as a writer a more involving and longer process with her publisher would be better, Chatto’s goes round several times. With Mother Island, she had started with Nula, knowing that Maggie would be a big part – but it became Maggie’s book in the edit.

20140731_203916_resizedThe inspiration for the book came from Bethan wanting to write about Anglesey. Originally she’d thought of a turn of the century setting, but being a new mother didn’t have time for the research – so she turned to her own life for the first time, and memories of many happy holidays there. (Incidentally, the boathouse in the novel does exist – it was a ruin, but has now been chi-chied up and was for sale at nearly 500k!). She particularly wanted to write a novel about motherhood and bringing up young children too – there aren’t many that show how difficult it can be.

Mother Island was a fantastic and involving novel to read – I highly recommend it. Bethan is lovely and I wish her every success. See you next time!

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mother Islandby Bethan Roberts. Pub July 2014 by Chatto & Windus, Hardback, 320 pages.
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts, paperback.

My last inbetweeny review from Shiny New Books

There’s still one of my reviews from what we editors have called the ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books that I haven’t highlighted here on my own blog.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

picture me gone

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who goes on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, and they’re all different and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

See the full review here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff, 2013, Penguin paperback, 208 pages.