Monday, 14 December 2009

THE SEA by John Banville (Man Booker Prize 2005)

An effete old geezer, art historian no-less, after the death of his wife from cancer goes back to visit scenes from his adolescent life. He rents a room with Miss Vavassar and copes with the jealousy of the other lodger, a retired major, wouldn't you guess? Our lonely old widower relives in his mind the longeurs of teenage holidays and his obsession with the family of  Mr and Mrs Grace, twins Chloe and Myles plus Rose, the nanny. He is now lodging in the house this family used to rent for the summer.

In that past of glorious summers by the sea

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Leviathan by Paul Auster (1992) Viking Press

A strange, frustrating style at first which takes some perseverance. It ended up more rewarding than I had begun to fear. Reported speech from characters with lots to say! The main character is such a precise, moral person that he eventually finds he has murderered somebody - but in mitigating circumstances! When he finds out more about the man he has killed, he feels that he had much in common with his victim. So there it is; the lesson for us all.

The book probably owes its theme to Thomas Hobbes

Monday, 23 November 2009

Daughter of the Desert by Georgina Howell. Pan Books, 2006

The title's 'daughter of the desert' was Gertrude Bell, an ironmaster's daughter from the North-East of England. The book itself was a birthday present from my daughter, Pippa. We are both interested in Gertrude's life and achievements having first met her in a novel based around the Cairo Conference, 1921 when she met with Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and others to negotiate the governance of Mesopotamia, the region we now refer to as Iraq. The origins of present-day Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine also come into Gertrude Bell's story.

What was Gertrude doing there? Well, it is a great story. She explored the Arab areas and made friends with the sheikhs and other Arabs who worked for her on her expeditions.  Remarkable, given attitudes towards women in this region. She learned Arabic and several dialects. She respected and loved their culture and became a major source of information about it.

She came from a very close family and before she went to the Middle East she had been the first woman to gain a double first at Oxford - not many women even got to university then. She became an intrepid mountaineer known to and respected by the male guides and climbers of her day. The climbing episodes I personally found a bit boring but the account of her life as an expert on the Arab world throws a great light on why and what the military are doing there now. The British and French, for example, last century, as allies fought a war in the area against the Turks. Oil for the British Navy was a strong interest. At the time of the First World War 1914-18, the Turkish Empire which controlled the area, was gradually being eased out by force and politics.

Gertrude Bell would have been horrified

Friday, 2 October 2009

Frederick Forsyth

The memorable film 'The Day of the Jackal' was based on one of his books of the same title. This article reminded me of it. Would anyone like to write a review of this famous 'non-new book'? And send it to directly or through the pages of the NON-NEW BOOK REVIEW blog.

con referencia a: Frederick Forsyth: 'I lost £2.2m in a share fraud' - Telegraph (ver en Google Sidewiki)

Friday, 25 September 2009

Richard II by Wm Shakespeare and Framed by Tonino Benacquista

Richard II pub. Bliss, Sands & Co, MDCCCXCVIII (1898)
Richard II banishes two nobles: Mowbray, the Duke of Gloucester and Bolingbroke, son of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. They have been bickering and accusing each other of treason. While Bolingbroke is in exile, his father John of Gaunt dies and Richard II tries to take over Gaunt's estates.

It is John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, dying, but waiting to see his King and in the company of the Duke of York, who reflects on his admired country and its noble kings (but not the current one) in Act II, scene 1.
The speech often set for schoolboys to learn begins:
"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars..."

Gaunt's son, Bolingbroke, returns to England and it turns out that most of the nobles support him against the King, who only has the Duke of York and the Bishop of Carlisle on his side. Bolingbroke therefore prevails, deposes Richard and becomes King while one of his fans overdoes things. There is always one, right! Saying that Bolingbroke had wished the King was dead, this ONE sets off and does the deed, thus starting a slow fuse to the scattered bush fires known as the Wars of the Roses.

There is more duplicity in the average episode of a 'soap' like East Enders

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

If Goldilocks had entered our house on a particular day in early August this holiday summer she would have found all six bears out (probably at the bear beach). If she had lain on our beds she would have found herself lying beside a non-new book left there by its absent occupant and current reader.

Junior Teenage Bear was reading THE HOST by Stephanie Meier (pub 2008).

Senior Teenage Bear was reading THE UNFORTUNATES by Laurie Graham (pub 2002),

Mother Bear was reading PIGS IN HEAVEN by Barbara Kingsolver (pub 1993).

Father Bear was reading BORKMAN'S POINT by Hakan Nesser (pub 1994 Sweden, 2006 England).

Grandmother Bear was reading THE COLOUR by ROSE TREMAIN (pub 2003).

Grandfather Bear was reading THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN pub.2007

by James Lee Burke,

This latest story by James Lee Burke describes Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans followed by Hurricane Rita's on Texas/ Louisiana. There are vivid scenes of violence and squalor as the characters wade through floodwater and crimes too horrible to dwell on. There is beauty too always near in the tropical colour, sound and mood.

Detective David Robicheaux, fights his own instincts as well as criminals, trying to keep his self-respect alongside his strong wife and tough, adopted daughter. His loyalty to his violent friend Clete continually adds distractions to his workload, both public and private, in clearing up the mess of crime in the chaos made by the violence of the hurricanes and the looters. Through Robicheaux, Burke has plenty to say about political neglect and the conflict of factions in this part of the USA.
In the end though Robicheaux's public and private agendas coalesce through his friend Clete as they often did in the other books. If you have never read Burke's books before you have a great treat coming to you: strong on location in Louisiana (and Montana with his character Billy Bob Holland). Colour, crime, quirky characters and relationships give his books a grip on you that may not let you go. You will be in danger of returning often to New Iberia.

My grateful thanks go to Father Bear (above, reading an Icelandic author) who first introduced me to current American writers such as James Lee Burke (reviewed above), Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. Would anyone like to send me a review of a book by one of these writers?

Please note the double value you get from this website: not just Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In my version there are SIX bears.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, 1970, Harper-Collins and 19 more books in the series

The first book of a marvellous series of 20 historical novels based on British records of actual events involving the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Excellently described elsewhere, these books are ones that I often return to. They are full of incident, character, the social and intellectual attitudes of the times on land as well as sea, and using the language of the times. O'Brian's wide-ranging research into the sciences of the time particularly Botany and into the practice of Medicine when 'bleeding' was still considered a treatment, and into the historical settings of the time in Australia, Mauritius, Chile and Peru, France, Spain as well as England bring a great feeling of confidence in the content and delight in its variety throughout the series of books. O'Brian was brought to a wider audience by the film starring Russell Crowe, which used content from three books of the series and the title of the first book.

I remember years ago, around 1996 perhaps, waiting to read the next of the series as soon as it was published. These would have been: The Commodore, The Yellow Admiral, The Hundred Days, and finally Blue at the Mizzen. O'Brian died in January, 2000 aged 85.

The esoteric terminology of all the paraphernalia of ships with sails is also present but you may, if you wish, be as impatient with it as one of the main characters, Stephen Maturin, the surgeon, as there is so much more to relish. Master and Commander Jack Aubrey is an action man who also plays the violin,

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

No Great Mischief by Alastair McLeod

A family of MacDonalds leaves the Highlands in 1779 lead by Calum MacDonald headed for Cape Breton. Their descendants spread across Eastern Canada. In the 1980s one of the red-haired clan loses his parents in a remarkable episode when they are returning home across frozen water at night. He is brought up by his grandparents. The story brings out the reputation of a hardy set of redheads capable of handling the rough life of the former wilderness mastered by their ancestors. The writer refers to the rebellion of the Scots in 1745 led by 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and their eventual defeat at Culloden in 1746 where a Lieutenant Wolfe was a participant on the side of the English.

In 1759, General Wolfe captured Quebec from the French in a famous victory and at one point sent in the Highlanders from his army with the comment that it would be 'no great mischief if they were to fall' - see title of book!

This is a story of people's pride both in their heritage and in the future of their new country which they helped grow to independence. Highly recommended, nine out of ten.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Russia House by John Le Carré, c 1989, Hodder and Stoughton

This is an enjoyable read even if you don't have much interest in the Cold War and how the ice melted in great power relations through perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the Russia of President Gorbachev. This is because the book is largely dialogue: a kind of courtroom questioning. Whether Barley, the charming Englishman, is being grilled about his integrity by representatives of American military or exchanging remarks with the beautiful Katya, there is a search for information, and the revelation of character going on through the dialogue all the time. If you think of how you talked to someone you fancied in the intial stages of your relationship you are on the right lines. If you remember how alert you became when you heard him or her mention another name that you thought might be a rival, you will have the basic idea. You want to find out more but not reveal your jealousy.

In Moscow, Leningrad, London or on an island off the coast near Boston in USA, and at a publishing exhibition, a party, in a one-to-one conversation, there is excitement in whether the spy-hunters will pick through to the truth under the plausible. And behind it all is an intriguing love story,

Thursday, 4 June 2009

War and Peace, Book III, by Leo Tolstoy (Reader - Beware of Spoilers)

So, as you probably guessed that Andrew and Natasha's wedlock does not happen. Natasha is able to nurse the wounded Andrew on a journey out of Moscow and he forgives her for her escapade with Anatole Kaguine but dies in her arms, of course. Peter Bezukov goes through a period of depression, at one time consumed by a plan to personally shoot Napoleon, but rediscovers his good nature while surviving as a prisoner of the French on their retreat from Moscow.
Kutuzov, the old Marshall, after Borodino, manages to avoid another battlefield confrontation with the French as he believes that the invading army will waste itself without the need for another battle. The Tsar too is urged to depend on smaller skirmishes to finally remove the invaders. Nicolas leaves his regiment on the death of his father in order to restore order to the family's affairs by developing his lands in a profitable way with Maria and her fortune beside him.
Peter marries Natasha and scenes of domestic family life return to the story. The final section of the book, the Epilogue, sees Tolstoy put forward his view that individuals cannot manage chaotic events which change history (change established cultural patterns?). Such events are the product of numerous forces at work in people's lives.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

War and Peace, Book II by Leo Tolstoy (Reader - Beware of Spoilers)

The photo of the first page of Volume II, Everyman's Edition, pub. Dent shows BOOK SIX. Don't worry, this is Tolstoy's presentation of his story not the publisher's.

The story of Volume II: Prince Andrew Bolkonsky`s wife, the 'little Princess', dies in childbirth on the day her husband returns from the war, where he was severely wounded. (The tragedy occurred in Volume I but I didn't mention it in the review as it may have been a spoiler for anyone starting out on the trilogy) Prince Andrew proposes to Natasha Rostov but his father makes him promise to wait a year before marriage. His sister, Maria, continues to live for God, writing to a friend whose brother has been killed in the war saying that His ways are ultimately for our own good and that her sister-in-law would not have been strong enough to bring up a child in the Bolkonsky household.
During Natasha and Andrew's layoff year the playboy Anatole Kanguine meets Natasha and with the help of Peter Besukov's estranged wife, Helen, persuades Natasha to elope with him, not telling her that he is already married. His dastardly plot is thwarted when Sonia and others of the Rostov household find out and Natasha is stricken with grief for her guilt.
Peter Besukov's concern for Natasha, and Andrew's father's classic decline into interfering senility are overtaken by the War as the French advance on Moscow. There is political confusion as factions scramble to advise Tsar Alexander. Revolution is prefigured

Monday, 4 May 2009

War and Peace, Book l by Leo Tolstoy (reader - beware of spoilers)

In the opening scenes, set first in St Petersburg, the fashionable capital with its elaborate manners, and then in Moscow, a more provincial city, we meet members of five families. Incident involving members of these families occurs throughout the trilogy. Andrew Bolkonsky, handsome and dashingly eager for glory; Nicolas Rostov, immature, a delight to his sister and parents, Peter Besukov, clumsy, intellectual, and rudderless with a huge fortune in prospect, are three of this number.
The first two are soon soldiers in the huge parade of the armies before the Emperors of Russia and her ally Austria. Rostov is entranced by the sight of the Tsar and feels that he could die for him. Bolkonsky, too, dreams of battlefield distinction. After the French victory, Napoleon's party on the battlefield come across the body of a young officer apparently struck down at the moment of grasping the colours of a French regiment. They find that the man is not dead although severely wounded. During the battle Rostov had been sent by General Bagration as a messenger with the hopeless task of finding Marshall Kutuzov for orders but he does come across plenty of battle detail for Tolstoy to describe. In St Petersburg after the Russian defeat, Bagration is nevertheless praised by the chattering classes for conserving the lives of his men.

Bolkonsky is feared dead by his father and sister but his young pregnant wife, the 'little princess'. has not entirely given up hope. His sister Maria, highly devout can accept disaster as God's will. The day of Bolkonsky´s momentous return to his family having been left for dead on the battlefield (he was the wounded Russian officer found by Napoleon) becomes also a day of family tragedy.

After his battle experiences, Prince Andrew Bolkonsky is content to settle on the family estate and remain out of society. The young ladies of the families we met in St Petersburg and Moscow come to the fore

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Stalin:The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2004)

Stalin, Bulganin, Kruschev, Molotov, Beria, Yezhov, Mikoyan, Zdanov, Zhukov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov and so many others are associated with mass murder in the name of a cause, but in the end in the name of one man's egomania. The size of the author's research task on Russian documents must make the book a research epic (720 pages). He managed to do it all in 5 years from Kremlin archives to publication. The killings are weird to read about because their scale is so great and within the lifetime of this reader. Then later a few thousand deaths here or there seems banal in face of the millions of individual tragedies. Even among comrades and colleagues Stalin got rid of those he got tired of, or suspected of outshining him, or of being an alternative leader. And he could always read a report or receive a verbal account in person from torturers 'working' not far away in the Lubianka. He headed a team of Commissar-Butchers who would take a train to a region and arrange executions of local officials by the hundred, or even greater 'units' sometimes, in order to solve some 'problem'. Poskrebyshev, Stalin's ' Cabinet Secretary' with his space outside the door to Stalin's office,

Friday, 20 March 2009

Havana Black by Leonardo Padua, Trans. Peter Bush

The reluctant police lieutenant Mario Conde, "The Count", is given 3 days by his chief to solve the murder of a Cuban returnee (from the USA) whose body was found on a beach. Set in Havana, the atmosphere of loyal friends and their enjoyment of eating and drinking together is an effective one amidst the decay of the city under Castro. The Count is a reluctant policeman, always thinking of leaving the police force. Meanwhile, he learned of ancient treasure shipped from the Philippines to Cuba and then to Spain. There is a golden Buddha involved. This reminded me of The Maltese Falcon a story by Dashiell Hammett, made into a film, 1941. The icon ornament of this earlier story, a black falcon, was also on its way to Spain.

Back to Havana Black: apparently when Castro's regime came to power a lot of private property was appropriated by the state. Perhaps not all of it found its way into the state museums and galleries. The book is one of a series with Mario Conde doing better than that other Count questionably "eating kippers with his mother-in-law tonight". Eight out of ten.

The quote about another Count comes from the tv series Monty Python where the question "Is the count eating kippers with his mother-in-law tonight?" is used as an absurd password.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore and Single and Single by John Le Carré

The Colour of Blood, 1994. Set in a communist country possibly an amalgam of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland, before the end of the Cold War. Cardinal Wem survives an assassination attempt but is kidnapped the same night by what are perhaps a group of Roman Catholic rebels. Do both State and Church rebels have it in for him?

There are mysterious cars following other mysterious cars. The Cardinal escapes and tension builds up around him. A faceless malevolence met in other stories about countries behind the iron-curtain seems to surround events which build up to a climax in the days before a Church festival celebrating a martyrdom 200 years earlier. The Cardinal is determined to attend. In the presence of the Prime Minister and with anonymous Security Police in the congregation, the Cardinal speaks out against violence. He gives communion and sees a face he remembers. Eight out of ten. Very strong on atmsophere. Brian Moore's (same author) 'The Mangan Inheritance' was the first book reviewed on this blog, see below. You can also follow the link to the dangerous life of a real Cardinal.

Single and Single by John le Carré, 1999
A traditional English gent in tweeds with son in Public School, a minor one but nevertheless...

Friday, 20 February 2009

Knole and the Sackvilles by Vita Sackville-West, copyright 1949 (non-fiction)

There were cricket professionals as early as the eighteenth century. Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent had one or two on the staff. They have long gone but the cricket square is still there in the grounds at Knole. The grounds are undulating meadowland in a park with great old trees and a smarter garden close to the house. On one visit there with family by car (my family, not the Sackvilles) we had trouble keeping the deer from eating our sandwiches. You go for a quiet day out and this is what happens!

The panorama of Sackvilles, Earls, then Dukes, of Dorset is centuries wide so the family tree at the front of the book is needed often. The history of the house starts in the 13th century, and the history of the Sackvilles there began in the 16th when Queen Elizabeth gifted it to her Treasurer Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst whom she made the first Earl of Dorset...with a house in Kent! Sevenoaks was closer to the office than Buckhurst in the Weald, the family's home. Thomas must also have sighed with relief when the Queen held court at Eltham or Greenwich rather than Westminster as it was also an easier commute.

The joy of the book is in the detail such as the names and jobs

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

One Shot by Lee Child

One Shot (A Jack Reacher novel) by Lee Child, copyright 2005

Jack Reacher is the writer's stock character, a Frederick Forsyth type of hero, a former military policeman, officer, currently living loose, without permanent address (I can't thing why - a loose cannon image perhaps?). Anyway, he is big, aggressive and a know-all to boot but somehow it works. Luckily I found I was reading a large print copy which managed to keep his character within limits. However, it is an uncomfortable size -and when you drop off to sleep it falls on your face, hard.

A rock solid case seems to put James Barr as the certain perpetrator of a massacre in a small Indiana town. Video and other evidence lead to Barr's arrest in bed at home. He will say nothing except "Get Jack Reacher!". It turns out that Barr had done a similar set of killings as a sniper in the army in Kuwait City. Yeah, it is one of those books in a long tradition - at least since the Crusades - that use the reflected 'glory' of characters who have been in a war to impress the reader. And it always works, doesn't it?

Emerson, the detective, Rodin the D.A., his daughter - newly qualified as a lawyer and a nefarious group of violent villains all have a part to play as Reacher gets to know them. As does an old flame of his, Brigadier-General Eileen Q, a military lawyer (How's that for a fantasy ..... whether in judge's wig or general's uniform with pips?) while gradually light is thrown on how the killings were done, by whom and why - although it is almost unnecessary in the end given all the other fun. Enjoyable, nine out of ten.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997)

There are two interwoven stories: that of Inman and that of Ada. They meet and fall in love just before Inman goes to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Ada, on her own after her father's death, waiting and yearning for Inman's return, meets Ruby whose practical skills help them both to grow food and endure the demands of wartime. They farm Ada's plot of land together. Meanwhile, Inman a wounded soldier in hospital, deserts to find his way back to Ada. He battles the horrors of walking through wilderness alone, needing to find food. Threatened by most of the people he comes across he finally comes up against Teague and his team. Officially sanctioned to capture deserters, they are really just a bunch of thugs given rein to get away with murder. Ada's story of overcoming hardship is inspiring while Inman's tale of outwitting enemies and stealing food is a grim one deserving its due reward. Does he find Ada?

Frazier uses archaic words to take us back to the times in the terrain as it was then, and to the food, use of herbs, and of building materials, and the rough conditions of the time, itself a time of war. He says he was conscious of similarities with Ulysses and Penelope in Homer's The Odyssey. He was a teacher of English Literature you will not be surprised to hear.
Nine and a half out of ten. Well worth reading, even if you have seen the film ' Cold Mountain' - also the name of real mountain in North Carolina. (Click on the title above for more information about the book)
There is no photo as the book is no longer with me!

Fatherland by Robert Harris, 1992, is at first the story of an investigation into racketeers who stole art treasures and sent them abroad. The policeman, March, is a sympathetic hero in his search for justice in a Berlin bureaucracy
generally unsympathetic to his enquiries. Even more so when he finds evidence of the most unspeakably horrific crimes. Details of the holocaust are found in documents discovered by March. There are attempts

Friday, 2 January 2009

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst

This is a great read. It begins in a small town on the Danube in Bulgaria in the 1930s where local bullies don Fascist Uniforms and kill a young man. His brother, Kristo, involved in the fight with the bullies, now has no future in the village and is recruited by an agent of Soviet Russia for training as an undercover communist agent. The methods used are cruel and competitive. Kristo is sent to Spain along with others from his course and there are scenes from the defence of Madrid by the Republicans aided by international volunteers. The Russian NKVD enforces obedience and conformity mercilessly, the slightest hint of inconvenient allegiances among the men it has control of can result in execution even in the face of the enemy.

Escaping from the NKVD in Spain, Kristo reaches Paris and works as a waiter in the Brasserie Henninger (the restaurant appears in Furst's other books, eg The Polish Officer) using a false identity, with even more identities to follow as he leaves Paris in advance of the German invaders. Near the border with Switzerland