Thursday, November 29, 2012

2,474: Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

Stanley Featherstone (pronounced “Fanshawe”) Ukridge is not the first Wodehouse character who would spring to the mind of a casual reader but he is one of the minor Wodehousian protagonists, like Uncle Fred, whom I count as a secret pleasure.  Other than Love Among the Chickens, Ukridge is a denizen of Wodehouse’s short stories, appearing in nineteen of them over the years, of which ten constitute Ukridge.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Ukridge is a large, untidy kind of fellow who is forever scheming to make his fortune in a variety of improbable manners, without having to go to the inconvenience of actually doing any real work.  Whilst waiting for his plans to come to fruition, he survives by sponging off his redoubtable Aunt Julia, a novelist, and various long-suffering friends, notably Jimmy Corcoran, the narrator of the stories in Ukridge, and George Tupper, a well-meaning, if too earnest, member of the Foreign Office.

Ukridge seems both to annoy and charm his social circle in equal measures and, despite his friends knowing full well that he is both impecunious and a bit of a blagger, he never fails to persuade at least one of them to pay for supper or to invest in his latest scheme.  He floats through life with sunny optimism, interspersed with disappointment as his best laid plans for wealth fail dismally.

There is much amusement and enjoyment to be had in reading an Ukridge short story and watching how the implausible plan at first seems, against all logic, to be proceeding nicely, before the inevitable happens and he loses everything.  There’s no serious message here or exploration of emotional themes, just pure fun.

To give you a flavour of Ukridge’s world, his schemes involve running a dog training college, in which he intends to train dogs to appear in music hall productions and to live off rentals from the music hall owners.  This scheme turns to dust when his aunt discovers he has purloined the dogs from her.

Other doomed plots involve him acting as manager to an immensely talented but soft-hearted boxer and a conspiracy to take advantage of an accident insurance policy by having the beneficiary, an acquaintance of Ukridge and Jimmy, deliberately get injured.  The plot backfires spectacularly when the chap in question gets run over but, on waking can’t remember the existence of the conspiracy and keeps the payout himself.

Despite Ukridge’s moral failings, one can’t help rooting for him and I would recommend these short stories to anyone who’d like an undemanding but amusing read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2,475: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

I downloaded The Fear Index some time ago as part of an Amazon special offer and I am so glad I did as had I paid full price for it, I would have been quite resentful rather than just mildly disappointed.

Robert Harris is, you see, one of my favourite authors.  Other than The Ghost, which is sitting on my shelves waiting to be read (due to a general irritation with Tony Blair, the PM on whom the main character is loosely based), I have read every single one of his novels with pleasure.  From Fatherland via Archangel to his Ancient Roman novels, I have found them intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining.  You can almost feel the quality and depth of research and the fully-formed ideas that underpin the plots.

And then there is The Fear Index.  Set in Geneva, the main human protagonist of the story is Alex Hoffmann, a cookie-cutter nerd-turned-quant, who has made “a billion, billion-two” from the hedge fund he set up with his partner, another stereotype, this time of a hedge fund manager.

The plot is based around Alex’s new invention, VIXAL-4, a "machine-learning algorithm".  To the likes of you and me, that boils down to a computer that trades without instruction and which learns from analysing real time data, not only on markets and trades but on world news unfolding events.  The extra twist is that the basis of the algorithm is fear; Alex’s theory is that fear is the strongest human emotion and that trading patterns are driven largely by fear.  By analysing the overall level of fear in the markets, VIXAL-4 should be able to predict market movements and, therefore, enable Alex’s firm to make even more pots of cash.

So far, so good.  But then, strange things start happening.  An unordered antique book arrives for Alex, apparently paid for by him.  The entire first exhibition of art by Alex’s wife, Gaby, is bought by a single buyer, humiliating her.  The mysterious buyer appears to be Alex, although he claims not to know anything about it.  There is a break in at Alex’s luxurious Lake Geneva house.  And, more frighteningly, VIXAL-4 appears to be doing things no machine could.  Like predicting plane crashes and trading outside the limits that have been set for it.

Alex’s life rapidly goes from bad to worse, losing his marriage and becoming involved with a sexually perverse murder.  In the space of a day, he is driven from successful hedgie to a near-madman.  It’s actually nice and fast-paced and quite an enjoyable read……..right until the big reveal, which turns out to be massively disappointing and hastily wrapped up.  I actually want to tell you all about it as it is one of the main reasons the book disappointed me so much, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, should you choose to read it.

To be fair, nothing Harris writes could be all bad.  As I mention above, it is nice and fast-paced and it’s an easy read.  He makes a pretty good fist of explaining hedge funds and he manages to create a decent sense of fear and tension.  It’s just that there’s so much more he could have done with his premise.  It feels as if he hasn’t really thought it all out or that he couldn’t be bothered to explore it in any great depth and then lost interest and tried to wrap it up too quickly.  The characterisation too is all a bit glib and cardboard and nothing like his previous books.

It’s frustrating.  There is an excellent thriller in here somewhere; it’s just a shame that Harris couldn’t bring it out.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s back on form next time.

Monday, November 19, 2012

2,476: Another Time, Another Life by Leif GW Persson

For those of you who have read my post on Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (BSLWE), the first in Leif GW Persson’s “A Story of a Crime” trilogy will, no doubt, be unsurprised to find that this post on its sequel is equally positive.

Having based BSLWE on the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, Persson again blends a real life crime, in this case a siege of the West German embassy in Stockholm in 1975, with his fictional crime, in this case, the murder of a Swedish civil servant in 1989, to create a launch pad for another densely plotted, well-written and slyly humorous novel.

Although Another Time, Another Life also has a complex interweaving of storylines, I believe that it is actually more accessible than its prequel which featured a telescoping of the investigation of a single crime by two separate groups of police.  In Another Time, Another Life, the interweaving is between the two different crimes and it is much easier to see how the strands come together.  It is much more tightly plotted and is a more conventional read.

One of the features of Persson’s writing that I am coming to love is his cross-pollination of characters from his other work.  Although Lars Martin Johansson is the nominal hero of both these books, other characters from Persson’s oeuvre such as the hilariously unpleasant and incompetent Backstrom, who is the anti-hero of his own series of books by Persson.  Other characters from BSLWE also make more or less welcome reappearances.

Another Time, Another Life is, at first glance a police procedural style novel, focussing on the nuts and bolts of the police investigation into the civil servant’s murder and featuring beat cop Backstrom, whose ham-fisted and bigoted attempt to turn it into a “gay-slaying” case completely confuses the issue.  However, Persson is not “merely” a crime writer and uses the format to explore other issues relating to Swedish society and, in particular, the self-justifying and perpetuating nature of Sepo, Sweden’s “closed” or secret police whose leadership has, fortuitously for the reader, been assumed by Johansson.

What this means is that the plot moves more into political thriller territory by adding an additional layer to Johansson’s investigations: not only is he trying to find the killer of the civil servant but he must also work out who within the Swedish establishment wants the victim’s possible link to the embassy siege to be found or, indeed, covered up.

As this is Persson, we are also given a wry look into the nature of Swedish society and the culture of its law enforcement agencies.  Persson doesn’t shy away from exposing the sexist, racist and right-wing tendencies that can flourish in what, from the outside, can look suspiciously like a model society.  If it weren’t for Persson’s sense of humour, this could, no doubt, be quite dispiriting.  I especially enjoyed the bitter irony of the ending where the appalling Backstrom manages to have his “solution” to the 1989 murder accepted and the murder ascribed to a gay serial killer.

I’m no expert when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction which is all the rage at the moment but I am a bit surprised that Persson’s novels aren’t better known.  They are deeply satisfying and thoroughly absorbing and I’d recommend them highly to anyone.

Many thanks to the publishers, Transworld, for sending me a copy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2,477: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son is a wonderfully written novel with a complex and, at times, confusing narrative structure that may not make it everyone’s cup of tea.  Nevertheless, and without needing to resort to the flip comment that it is, undoubtedly, the best novel set in North Korea this year, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys an intelligent novel that requires the reader to commit to it.

We first meet Jun Do, the principal actor in the book, in a remote orphanage in North Korea.  He believes that he is the son of the master of the orphanage and a beautiful woman who has been transferred by the regime to Pyongyang, the capital.  The narrative does, however, leave open the possibility that this is a fantasy created by Jun Do to help him create a sense of identity and, indeed, the nature of identity in a totalitarian state runs as an undercurrent throughout the novel, emerging as a major theme in the second half.

Upon reaching manhood, Jun Do is conscripted into the North Korean armed forces, the fourth largest in the world believe it or not.  Orphans, or those like Jun Do who end up being treated as orphans, are given the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the military and Jun Do becomes a tunnel fighter, trained to fight hand to hand in the total darkness of the tunnel system dug by the North Koreans under the Demilitarised Zone.

His toughness and prowess in this most demanding of roles is Jun Do’s first step in a varied career that leads him from tunnel fighting to kidnapping Japanese on behalf of the state and from monitoring English language radio broadcasts on board a trawler to taking part in a bizarre trade mission to Texas.

This first half of the novel is somewhat picaresque and is a collection of episodic stories, a kind of Orphan’s Progress.  Jun Do is, largely, carried along by events, conforming to the state’s demands of him and not really questioning things.  His identity is given to him by the government and his only real complaint is that people insist on identifying him as an orphan despite his adamant belief that he is not.

At this point, there is a major shift in the structure and plotting of the novel which is quite confusing at first and, I suspect, could alienate many readers.  The chapters of the second half of the novel are divided between chapters telling the continuation of Jun Do’s story and chapters written from the viewpoint of the public address systems that continually blast out propaganda to the people of Pyongyang and which tell Jun’s story from an entirely different perspective, highlighting the warped alternative narrative that the totalitarian system imposes on the lives of its citizens.  The shift in structure is magnified by the author’s decision to begin the second half midway through its timeline and to fill in the gaps gradually through the remainder of the story
We are introduced to Commander Ga, a military hero married to Sun Moon, North Korea’s most important actress.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Commander Ga is, in fact, our old friend Jun Do.  And, most bizarrely, no one other than Sun Moon and her children seems to be aware of this.  Although we are slowly told how this peculiar situation has come to pass, it was quire disconcerting and, once we know that Jun Do has killed Commander Ga in prison and assumed his identity, it is a shocking reminder of how a totalitarian regime can alter history and force its citizens to accept lies and deceit.

From here, although the narrative is complex, the basic plot becomes a relatively straightforward one  in which Jun Do plots to help Sun Moon and her children escape the madness and oppression of Pyongyang and defect to the USA.  The growing assertion by Jun Do of his own ability to choose his identity and fate turns the novel into an existentialist text for me as Jun Do ceases to be a passive acceptor of his life but takes positive action to determine his ending.

In reading the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son, Sartre’s Les Mains Sales came to mind, in which Hugo, the protagonist, having been pretty supine for much of the play exerts his will and lays claim to his existence by rejecting the chance to save his life when targeted by assassins in order to show that a murder he had committed had been carried out for political reasons rather than personal jealousy.  Given the option to save himself by accepting the latter, he cries “non recupérable!” (not salvageable) and seals his own fate.  In enabling Sun Moon’s escape, Jun Do also shows himself able to claim his own will rather than permanently bending to the will of the state.

Although the soft part of me was desperately hoping for a happy ending for Jun Do afgter all of his hardships, the lack of one did not prevent The Orphan Master’s Son from being highly readable and enjoyable.  Although the author had only visited North Korea once, the respected author Barbara Demick, an expert on North Korea, has praised the book for its portrayal of North Korean life.  It also says a lot about the barbarity and surrealism of everyday life in the Hermit Kingdom that it is difficult to tell which of the appalling details are factual or the author’s artistic licence.

The Orphan Master’s Son is, by necessity, a dystopian novel, redolent with echoes of 1984.  It is also, as well as a novel of ideas, a spy story and a love story.  It isn’t perfect - oddly enough, I found the episode set in Texas to be far less believable that the rest of the novel, despite the fact that the author is American - but I believe it is an excellent novel and certainly one of my favourite reads of 2012.

Many thanks to the publisher, Random House, for allowing me to read a review copy from Netgalley.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2,478: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

The Victory Lab, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by Crown Publishing, tells the story of how academics and computer experts have gradually come to play a major role in the way political campaigns in the USA are run.  It features a cast list of political scientists, campaign managers and statisticians who, between them, have come up with a cornucopia of analytical techniques and tools to determine whether you vote, how you vote and, more importantly, how to get you off your sofa, into the polling booth and putting your mark against their candidate’s name.

On the whole, it is a fascinating read, taking a historical view of vote analysis and showing how tools and techniques have been introduced and refined over the years.  As is to be expected, there is an emphasis on recent campaigns, particularly those of Bush Senior, Clinton, Bush Junior and Obama and it is the last of those in particular that are of special interest, given that, as this is posted, America will be about to go to the polls to choose between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although one of the criticisms of The Victory Lab is the way it jumps from topic to topic without a great deal of connection, one of the key underlying themes is the shift from precinct based analysis, in which all voters within a single political unit are, essentially, treated the same, to the concept of micro-targeting, in which analysts can identify individual voters in otherwise unpromising locations who are worth spending time on.  Micro-targeting also allows for very specific messages to be crafted for small sub-groups of voters for whom not all of a candidate’s views may be well received.

Underpinning this shift is, of course, the rise of the computer and of processing power, which allow the analysts to process huge quantities of data through their algorithms, enabling them to measure human behaviour and identify exactly which voters they need to get out on the day, as well as how to do this.  The first Obama campaign appears to have been the apotheosis of this approach, using the available analysis to create a kind of mass-participation campaign hitherto unfamiliar to US presidential campaigns.  Some of the details of this campaign are truly amazing, including the mind-boggling view of a senior Obama aide that the computer models had become so sophisticated that, for undecided voters, the computer could determine which way the voter would jump even before the voter knew.

What is also notable from the text is how little the candidates themselves appear to be involved.  Although they, and their manifestos, set the framework, it seems that the voting models and persuasion techniques operate almost independently, although this impression may be distorted by the focus of the book.
There is also very much of a flavour of an arms race between Democrats and Republicans, with each side eagerly adopting innovations made by the other side and ramping up the money and resources given to this new breed of political operative.

The Victory Lab is a truly fascinating book that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the machinery and process of politics.  In a way, it is a shame that I am currently disenchanted with pretty much every British political party as I would very much have liked to deliver a copy of this book to my preferred party.  As I suspect the UK is behind the US in this kind of thing, it would be interesting to see how the tools could be adapted to a British general election and what kind of effect they would have on what is likely to be another close fought campaign.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Literary Blog Giveaway Hop - The Winners

As ever, it has been a pleasure to participate in the Literary Blog Giveaway Hop, organised wonderfully by Judith at Leeswammes' Blog.  As you will recall, I offered two chances to win a copy of one of the books in my list of novels by Oxonians.

The winners are......................

Flip and Lisa May!!

Flip chose Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

And Lisa May chose Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.

I have emailed the two lucky winners to get mailing details so that I can have their prizes sent to them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Heroines Who Rock

After a long absence caused by too much work, too many commitments and just a smidgen of lack of enthusiasm for blogging, I’m back (at least for a while) and ready to engage with this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set by the Broke and the Bookish…… top ten literary heroines.

It’s a sign of the historic male-centric nature of literature (or maybe just my own reading preferences) that, whereas a list of ten literary heroes would just trip off the tongue, a list of heroines has given me much pause for thought and contemplation.  It probably has something to do with the books I’ve read or, more importantly, not read - for example, I have always tended to avoid the likes of Austen and the various Brontës.  I also believe that, unlike the male hero, for whom there is a philosophical template of the central character who faces challenges, whether physical, mental or emotional and who overcomes them by facing them and doing “the right thing”, there seems either to be a relative lack of female central characters who fit this model (at least until recently) or a lack of a recognisable template.  In any event and in no particular order, here is my list of literary heroines, at least according to my lights.  One note: although I have nothing against her, I’m not including Hermione Grainger on a point of principle.

By the way, if you haven’t already done so, please feel free to enter my Literary Blog Hop Giveaway by clicking here.

1.         Matilda.  Confession time: Matilda isn’t my literary heroine, she is mini-Falaise’s first real literary heroine.  To me, Roald Dahl’s magical little girl is an irritating know-it-all who could do with a good metaphorical squashing.  To mini-Falaise though, she is the girl she wants to be.  Play-time in our house currently tends to involve her being Matilda, Mrs Falaise becoming Miss Honey, mini-Falaise’s invisible friend, Lavender and me being relegated to Un-named Child in Matilda’s class.

2.         Lady Macbeth.  OK, I know this is a little perverse as she is generally held up as one of Shakespeare’s villains and she did, after all, egg her husband on to commit regicide but, hey, what’s a little murder between friends?  More importantly to my mind, she was an incredibly strong (if evil) female character at the very beginning of the 17th Century, when most female characters would have been passive characters to whom events happened.  Not something one could say about the Lady.

3.         Mary Poppins.  She supercalifragilisticexpialidociously makes this list for two reasons.  Firstly, her saccharine sweet screen version both keeps mini-Falaise entertained now and again on DVD and, secondly, her less sickly novelistic incarnation introduced the stuffy Edwardians to the idea that children should, just maybe, be both seen and heard from time to time, in contrast to the views of their Victorian forefathers.  To be honest, there are times I wish that genie had been kept firmly in the bottle but, on the whole, it’s a good thing!

4.         Mrs Justice Phyllida Erskine-Brown.  If you are not an aficionado of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey books (and if not, why on earth not?), this may be a new one for you.  Through the series, the young Phyllida Trant survives the tender mercies of a pupillage with, and later marriage to, the weaselly and wet Claude Erskine-Brown, the outdated customs and views of the English Bar of the ‘70s and ‘80s and a number of court room and chambers clashes with Rumpole to become firstly, a QC, later a Recorder and, finally, a High Court judge.  Bright and feisty, she also has the advantage of having been played on TV by the lovely Patricia Hodge.

5.         Eowyn.  Despite my almost unbounded admiration for him, I can’t deny that Tolkien wasn’t so good on the female character side.  Not only are they pretty lacking in number, but they’re not exactly heroine material.  Indeed, Hollywood had to spice Arwen Evenstar up pretty heavily for the LotR movies to get any kind of gender balance in there.  The shining exception to the Tolkienian rule, however, is Eowyn, the hard-riding, ass-kicking daughter of niece of King Theoden of Rohan.  Indeed, so tough is she that she manages to kill the mighty Witch-King of Angmar.  Yeah‼!

6.         Tinkerbell.  She may be a little bit spiteful, a little bit prone to jealousy and a little bit flighty but she’s a spirited little fairy and her loyalty to Peter Pan is fierce.  I’d much rather mini-Falaise wanted to emulate her than the prematurely-middle-aged and slightly dull Wendy.

7.         V.I. Warshawski.  If I’m honest, the heavy-handed ‘80s feminism of Sara Paretsky’s series can get a little much but V.I. Warshawski, Chicago’s finest female private investigator, never gets stale.  She’s tough, smart and very independent.  In short, she rocks.

8.         Lyra "Silvertongue" Belacqua.  She’s her own girl, she’s sparky and she can use an alethiometer.  She knows what she believes and she’s the star of the His Dark Materials trilogy.  We like her.

9.         Irene Adler.  OK, so she’s not really a heroine.  In fact, she’s more of a villain.  And she only actually appears in one short story.  But, tell me, how cool must the woman be who can gain the respect (and even a little bit of love, maybe?) from the cold and, frankly, pretty misogynistic Sherlock Holmes?  So she makes this list - after all, it’s my list, my rules.

10.       Thursday Next.  Thursday gets the nod for the final spot on my heroine’s roster for managing to keep it all together whilst dividing her life between two different worlds, being a Jurisfiction agent as well as SpecOps, having a pet dodo and keeping her marriage going despite the fact that, for at least part of the series, her husband doesn’t actually exist.  She takes multi-tasking to the next level.  And she’s pretty cool.  And unlike Lady Macbeth, Tinkerbell and Irene Adler, she’s unmistakeably a heroine.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Literary Blog Hop Time - Come And Get A Book While They're Hot!

Seeing as I’m giving away free books, I’m sure no one will mind that my entry to the latest Literary Giveaway Hop, run by Judith at Leeswammes' Blog, is just a couple of days late.  As with my previous hop giveaways, I’m offering each of two of you a book of your choice from the list below.  The rules are simple - all you have to do is to read the list, choose which book you’d like to receive if you win and leave a comment below, telling me your choice and leaving some way of getting in touch with you.  The deadline for leaving comments is 6:30 a.m. on Thursday 1st November, the chosen hour being the time when mini-Falaise is likely to rouse me from my slumbers.  I'm happy to deliver to anywhere Amazon does!  If you haven’t already done so, I’d also recommend you visit the other participants in the hop and see if you can gather up more from this instalment of the hop.

And, so to the list.  I was torn between two themes for this instalment - books written by fellow graduates of my old university and books about food.  In the end, I’ve gone for the former, in part because Oxford has produced so many authors that it won’t take me much effort to come up with a list of ten and, given the lack of time I’ve had to blog over the past couple of months, time is very much of the essence for me.  So, here are the ten books written by Oxonians from which you may choose:

1.         The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s a classic, the film is soon to come out and Tolkien was not just an Oxonian but a fellow Exonian to boot so what more excuse could I need to offer one of the great children’s novels of all time.  Really, you should read it; you know it makes sense.  I’ll tell you what.  Seeing as how, deep down (verrrry deep down), I’m a kind and generous soul, if you’d prefer The Father Christmas Letters by the great man, you can choose that instead.  After all, it’s less than two months away now!

2.         The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.  Having claimed the distinction of having been at the same college of Tolkien, I’m going to double down on specious connections by pointing out that Mr Pullman is also an alumnus of Exeter College and offering you the first volume of his wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy.  It’s even more appropriate for this list as it is part set in Jordan, a fictionalised Oxford college.

3.         The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  Now, I bet you were thinking I’d put C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, into this list but I bet you didn’t think it would be The Screwtape Letters, his epistolary Christian novel, in which Screwtape gives a novice devil, Wormwood, a set of advice on how to tempt human beings into sin.

4.         Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  Really straining my claims to fame, Evelyn Waugh and I were at the same prep school, albeit several decades apart.  Brideshead is probably his best-known novel but, if truth be told, is neither the best nor my favourite of his works.  Nevertheless, sticking with the Oxonian theme, feel free to choose it.  But, if you prefer, you can go for the Sword of Honour trilogy or Scoop, both, in my humble opinion, much better novels.

5.         Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  A Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel set in Oxford, this fits right into my theme as well as being a favourite of mine.  It’s a good one, trust me.

6.         The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.  Apparently this was his only novel and a pretty good one at that.

7.         Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.  Although nominally a novel, it’s really a collection of linked short stories, telling the tales of a number of passengers on a trip on the Orient Express.  It’s also one of my favourite Greene books.

8.         The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams.  A hilarious novel about a solicitor from Wimbledon who decides to poison his wife, with unexpected consequences, I can thoroughly recommend this one.

9.         The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré.  The structure of this novel is that of a series of reminiscences by Ned, a former senior member of the Circus, le Carré’s fictional MI6.  Like Stamboul Train above, it’s more akin to a series of short stories.  For those who don’t like spoilers, this reveals the identity of the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the ending of The Russia House.

10.       Watership Down by Richard Adams.  Confession time: when my mum took me to see this at the cinema I cried.  Real tears and everything.  Anyway, it’s a true classic of children’s literature and if, like me, you have the misfortune to be in possession of a small person, you owe it to both them and yourself to introduce them to this…..and then cook them rabbit stew for tea.

Now, you know what to do.  Leave a comment below and go and check out these other fabulous giveaways!

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read in a Single Sitting
  3. Ephemeral Digest
  4. My Devotional Thoughts
  5. Devouring Texts
  6. Tony's Reading List
  7. Nishita's Rants and Raves
  8. Too Fond
  9. The Parrish Lantern
  10. Kristi Loves Books
  11. The Book Club Blog
  12. Sam Still Reading
  13. Silver's Reviews (USA)
  14. Bibliosue
  15. Heavenali
  16. Under My Apple Tree
  17. Misfortune of Knowing (North America)
  18. Lena Sledge's Blog
  19. Lost Generation Reader
  20. Seaside Book Nook
  21. The Relentless Reader
  22. Rikki's Teleidoscope
  23. Monique Morgan
  24. That READioactive Book Blog
  25. kaggsysbookisahramblings
  26. Ragdoll Books Blog
  27. Kate's Library
  28. The Book Garden
  29. Uniflame Creates
  30. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  1. Ciska's Book Chest
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  7. Sweeping Me
  8. Giraffe Days
  9. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (USA)
  10. Books Thoughts Adventures (USA)
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  15. 2606 Books and Counting
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  17. She-Wolf Reads
  18. The Little Reader Library (Europe)
  19. Booklover Book Reviews
  20. Dolce Bellezza

Monday, October 15, 2012

2,486-2,479: The Dr Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill

One of the joys of owning a Kindle is the regularly refreshed £2.99 or less offer on Amazon.  Not only does it give one the occasional rush of snagging a book from the TBR list at a bargain basement price, but it also throws up hidden gems that would otherwise slip beneath the radar.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun series of detective stories is just one of these.  Set in 1970s post-independence Laos, I am genuinely surprised that they are not much better known amongst lovers of gentle, slightly humorous detective fiction.  I could probably best describe them as a little bit like Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels but but less gentle and more detectivey and funny.  And set in South East Asia rather than Southern Africa, obviously.

Dr Siri Paiboun, the hero of the eight (to date) books in the series is a 70-something, French trained doctor who has spent much of his life as a Communist insurgent in the Laotian forest, fighting first against the French colonialists and then against the corrupt Royalist and US-backed regime.  Cynical, wise and not remotely ideological, his hopes of a comfortable retirement in Vientiane have been dashed as the new Pathet Lao government decided they needed a national coroner and promptly appointed Dr Siri, despite his total lack of training as a pathologist.

Unlike most fictional pathologists and forensic scientists, Siri is hampered by the poverty of 1970s Laos and a serious lack of equipment.  His team comprises Nurse Dtui, a “larger” lady, hooked on forbidden Thai celebrity magazines and Mr Geung, a Down’s Syndrome adult whom Siri is painstakingly trying to teach to read.  The series opens with The Coroner’s Lunch, in which we are introduced not only to Siri and the team but also to some of the other recurring characters in the series - Judge Haeng, Siri’s boss and nemesis, Civilai, a member of the ruling politburo and Siri’s best friend, and Phosy, a police inspector.

Siri also has a secret.  You see, his body is occupied by the soul of a 1,000 year-old shaman, Yeh Ming and so he frequently has visions of the spirit world that help him in his quest for justice.  This spiritual element, derived from traditional Laotian beliefs form a central theme to the books as Siri doesn’t only benefit from his spiritual alter ego but is often endangered by the evil phibon spirits that are trying to kill Yeh Ming by destroying his physical host - Dr Siri.

As the series progresses, the lives of the central characters develop and new characters join the crew including Madame Daeng, 60-something former spy and the best noodle seller in Laos, and Auntie Bpoo, a middle-aged transvestite fortune teller - yes, really.

Between them, the murders they solve range from that of a Party - member’s wife to the female victims of a serial killer and three young women, each stabbed with an epée - a weapon almost wholly unknown in Laos.
As well as being solidly crafted detective stories, there is an authentic sense of place to them which isn’t particularly surprising as Colin Cotterill has spent much of his adult life living and working in the Mekong Delta region.  He also examines the effect of the Communist takeover on the country and the impact of it on the fate of the Hmong, one of the main indigenous tribes and, in Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, he takes the reader on a short but unpleasant trip to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. 

The real joy of the books, however, is the interaction of the main characters and their growth through the series.  Siri, Madame Daeng and Civilai, in particular, come across as teenagers trapped in senior citizens’ bodies, with their disrespect for authority and their proclivity for practical jokes.

Having acquired the Coroner’s Lunch from the Amazon £2.99 or less section, I’ve bought and read the remainder of the series in very quick succession and am now in the invidious position of having no more to read until the publication of The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die next year.  If you’re a detective story fan and you haven’t tried these, I’d recommend you do so as they are strangely addictive.  The full list is:
1.         The Coroner’s Lunch
2.         Thirty-Three Teeth
3.         Disco for the Departed
4.         Anarchy and Old Dogs
5.         Curse of the Pogo Stick
6.         The Merry Misogynist
7.         Love Songs from a Shallow Grave
8.         Slash and Burn

Friday, September 14, 2012

2,487: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dnlop

To write an outstanding book in one genre may be unusual, to write one that is outstanding in two genres may be rare but to write one that is outstanding in three genres is just a little bit unfair to other authors.  Yet, that is exactly what Fuchsia Dunlop has done with the excellent Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, an excellent memoir, food book and travel book.

Fuchsia Dunlop was a sub-editor for the BBC when, having travelled in China, she was awarded a British Council scholarship to study in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.  Soon tiring of academia, she talked her way into becoming the first Westerner to be accepted as a student on the three month professional cooks’ course at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

Having completed this course, she spent the following years immersed in Chinese food, travelling in Sichuan, Hunan, Xinjiang and Yangzhou, writing two excellent regional cookbooks – Sichuan Cookery and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook - and becoming, almost certainly, the leading authority on Chinese cuisine in the UK.

Food writing needs to make me want to rush out and immediately stuff my face with the kind of food that features in the book and Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper did that in spades, giving me an almost desperate urge to run to the nearest Sichuan restaurant, which, unfortunately, was not practicable, given that I was reading the book on the Tube on the way to work or in the evening at home.  Fuchsia Dunlop has the gift of being able both to describe dishes accurately but also to make the flavours and smells leap off the page in mouthwatering fashion.  I was particularly gratified that she gave a fascinating description of being taught how to cook fire-exploding kidney flowers, which was, coincidentally, the first Sichuan dish I ever ate, at the great Bar Shu in Soho.

However, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper doesn’t just excel in its descriptions of dishes and ingredients, it is a fascinating treatise on regional Chinese cuisines in its own right, initiating the reader into the very different cuisines and eating habits of the various parts of China that Ms Dunlop travels in, from the spicy, complex dishes of Sichuan to the delicate tastes of Yangzhou and the central Asian cuisine of Muslim Xinjiang.  I learned a huge amount from this and, having read this, I appreciated the wonderful recent BBC TV series, Exploring China, even more.

But Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is not only a fine piece of food writing, it is also a great travel book as she describes and considers the changing nature of China during the years she has spent travelling and working there.  She writes evocatively about the speed with which the country has urbanised, tearing down old parts of cities and towns to be replaced with modern, concrete building and high rise blocks.  To mention Exploring China again, I was struck by the difference between the description of Chengdu in the early ‘90s in Sharks’ Fin and Sichuan Pepper by comparison to the soulless concrete megacity of 2012, shown on TV.

As well as this, Ms Dunlop talks passionately and unsparingly about how pollution and other environmental issues are affecting China and, in particular, its food resources.  She also addresses corruption and the way in which municipal funds are stripped away by local officials from the locals who really need them.

But, underlying the mouth-watering descriptions of food and the fascinating portrait of a changing China, maybe the most profound journey the book describes is that of Ms Dunlop herself.  Because, gradually, as the book progresses we see her shuffling off not just the culinary shibboleths of her Western upbringing but also many other cultural paradigms until she finds herself “thinking Chinese”.  To illustrate the way in which she grows accustomed to the omnivorous nature of Chinese life, in which almost any animal protein appears up for grabs, there is a very personal section of the book where she describes being at home in England and, upon finding a caterpillar in some salad, eats it to see whether she has left her Chinese eating habits in China.  Of course, she finds that eating caterpillar is unexceptional.

By the end of the book, Ms Dunlop appears to be almost split between two cultures in which she paradoxically appears both at home and a visitor.  Interestingly, she talks about Hong Kong, that former colonial jewel, as being a kind of decompression chamber for her between her two worlds.

I love this book and have also enjoyed each of Ms Dunlop’s cookbooks and so I am self-confessedly unobjective in writing about it.  Its subject matter is also so far within my wheelhouse that two of my family, completely independently, have bought me copies of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper but, nevertheless, I cannot recommend this highly enough to anyone with an interest in food, travel or China.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Armstrongs

The newspapers this weekend have been full of stories about two men who, though not related, share a surname.  I am, of course, referring to the two Armstrongs,  Lance and Neil.  Until recently, both men have represented something noble and uplifting about the human condition and both could, if they were so inclined, lay reasonable claim to the status of icon.  But the news of the past few days of Neil’s death and Lance’s disgrace has confirmed one as a hero for all time and the other as a hypocrite, liar and cheat.

Professional road cycling is an incredibly tough sport where races like the Tour de France routinely break strong and highly trained athletes, both physically and mentally.  In extreme cases, such as that of Tommy Simpson, the sport can, quite literally, kill.  If you are in any doubt about this, just have a read of books like Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, an autobiography of a journeyman professional, whose role in life was to do whatever was necessary to assist the stars of his team.

In this light, Lance Armstrong’s achievements appeared to be superhuman.  After all, this was a man who not only won more Tours de France than any other man, who had rewritten the record books of his sport and had totally eclipsed greats of the sport like Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain but he had done all this after having recovered from life threatening cancer and having undergone severe chemotherapy.  This was life-affirming stuff, a lesson in the ability of humankind to suffer and to overcome huge adversity.  Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation quite rightly managed to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to become the second largest funder of cancer research in the US after the federal government.

But even after all of this, he was probably only the second most famous bearer of his surname.  Neil Armstrong is, of course, famous for being the first man to set foot on the Moon but he was also a highly skilled pilot who flew almost 80 combat missions in the Korean War before becoming a test pilot and, ultimately an astronaut.  Undoubtedly a possessor of Tom Wolfe’s Right Stuff, the grainy TV pictures of his one small step and that hair-tingling commentary are amongst the most iconic images of all time.

A very private individual, Neil Armstrong became a professor at a university in Cincinnati after his moon landing and later retired to a farm in Ohio.  His public appearances were infrequent and he did not court the attention that could have followed him everywhere.  He was about as far removed from today’s celebrities as is imaginable.

In 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, Armstrong gave his view on what his achievement (and those of his fellow astronauts and the support teams at NASA) meant to the world.  He believed that it was significant because it signaled that humankind was not forever bound to the earth but could free its shackles and move beyond it.  This view, whilst accurate, was also, as was typical of the man, too understated.  His real achievement was to remind us all of our potential to challenge our limits and to do the seemingly impossible.  In breaking new frontiers, Armstrong revealed to us the best of our natures.

For Lance, it all started to go wrong in the late 2000s when allegations of performance enhancing drug use first began to circulate.  Notoriously litigious, Armstrong was always happy to sue and fiercely denied any wrongdoing, often attacking the character of those who challenged him.  He also benefited from the unwavering support of team mates and management and from his power and influence within the sport.   But, at the beginning of this year, four of his former team mates unilaterally emailed the USOC to ask not to be selected for the US cycling team at the London Olympics.  The reason soon became clear. 

In pursuing a federal investigation into doping in cycling, the FDA had forced a number of cyclists, including members of Armstrong’s former team, US Postal, to give evidence.  Although the agency had dropped its investigation, the US Anti-Doping Agency had become aware of the testimony of the cyclists and started its own investigation.   Knowing that USADA was already aware of their previous testimony, Armstrong’s team mates couldn’t go back on their evidence.  USADA determined that Armstrong had been guilty of systematic doping and stripped him of each of his Tour de France titles.  Although the worldwide governing body of cycling, the UCI, could challenge this decision, it appears unlikely to do so.

With evidence and testimony continuing to build up against him, Armstrong last week decided not to contest the USADA charges and to accept the stripping of his titles.  Let’s be clear here.  A man like Armstrong does not quit fighting just like that.  Despite trying to portray himself as a victim, his decision can only be seen as a tacit admission of guilt.  Armstrong is not the comic book hero his PR portrayed him as, defeating cancer and the cycling competition.  He is a cheat and a liar.  He is also a hypocrite, having been outspoken in his condemnation of doping.

If I’m honest, if all Armstrong had been guilty of was doping, I wouldn’t have been so angry.  The sport of road cycling was rife with doping during the ‘90s and 2000s.  Indeed, it is probably true to say that it would have been exceedingly difficult to beat a doped up field without resorting to it oneself.  Since Armstrong’s retirement, two of his successors to the yellow jersey of the Tour champion, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador have also been banned for doping.  Landis has spoken eloquently of the environment of the sport and the US Postal team, in which it felt normal and not immoral to dope.  I can empathise with this and with the pressure a young athlete must have felt.

What makes me angry are the lies, the hypocrisy and the smearing of those who bore witness against him, such as Michelle O’Reilly, the US Postal team therapist, whom Armstrong called a mentally disturbed prostitute in court, abusing the privilege granted to court evidence.  And most of all, the damage he has done to the belief that we, the human being, can really do such amazing things by challenging our limitations.

Which brings me back to the other Armstrong, Neil.  It was announced yesterday that he had died, aged 82, after having suffered heart problems.  Unlike Lance, he never wrote an autobiography.  Unlike Lance, he will forever be, not just an American hero but a hero for humankind, a man who opened our minds to humankind’s potential to open new frontiers and challenge its limitations.  Even more wonderfully, by never claiming to be superhuman or special, he showed us that this potential lies within us all.  The words of John Magee’s poem, High Flight come to mind:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2,488: Bryant and May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler

Last summer and autumn I took part in the Transworld Reading Challenge, in which I got to choose four novels from a selection of their titles and then review them.  One of the titles I chose was The Water Room by Christopher Fowler, featuring his slightly odd detective duo, Arthur Bryant and John May.  Having thoroughly enjoyed it and intending to read some more of the series, I then promptly moved on and forgot all about it.

Fast forward almost a year and I arrived home the other day to find a package waiting for me.  Tearing off the wrapping eagerly, I discovered that the lovely people at Transworld had very kindly sent me a copy of Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the latest book in the series.

For those of you not acquainted with the series, Bryant and May are the two senior detectives in the little-known Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police, whose function (other than its perennial fight for existence) is to solve, well, peculiar crimes really.  Bryant and May are both old men who have somehow avoided mandatory retirement.  Bryant is irascible, fascinated by the esoteric and prone to ruining technology by some mysterious innate ability.  May is the “people person” of the duo, a bit of a ladies’ man and seemingly forever doomed to play straight man to Bryant.  They are assisted in their endeavours by a small but devoted crew of police officers and some decidedly odd acquaintances.  It is definitely possible to read Bryant and May and the Invisible Code as a stand-alone novel but I think there’s more to be gained from it by reading others in the series first.

The story opens with the death of a young woman in a church, apparently from natural causes, despite two children claiming that they had cursed her to death for being a witch.  Bryant’s curiosity is piqued but he can’t manage to finagle the case into the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Conveniently for him, the PCU’s nemesis, the saturnine Oscar Kasavian, needs their help as his spouse has begun to behave in a most peculiar fashion, jeopardising his chances of heading a major government initiative.

As the two situations become increasingly interlinked, Bryant and May take us on a romp through London involving witchcraft, codes, the Rakes Club and secret nooks and crannies around London as the case starts to threaten not only the future of the PCU but even the lives of its members.

As with the other Bryant and May book I’ve read, Bryant and May and the Invisible Code is a many-layered tale, a little like the London to which this is a bit of an extended love letter.  It is a genuine detective story on one level, an affectionate parody of detective tropes on another and even a little bit of a supernatural tale on yet another.

But, permeating the whole of the book, London is Fowler’s true subject.  Like China Mieville, Dickens and others, Fowler captures a number of London’s myriad faces.  His London is not the bright lights of the West End or the aristocratic enclaves of Belgravia and Kensington but a moodier, more hidden London where, even when it’s sunny, there is an impression of shadow.  It’s a London filled with the quirky, a London that sits on layer upon layer of history and life.

Having failed to follow up with Bryant and May once before, I’m not going to make that mistake again and will be catching up with their earlier cases very soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

2,489: The Secret Olympian by Anon

Well it's nearly over.  We are just a few hours away from the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.  As I write, the last of the 304 gold medals has just been won and soon the Olympic baton will have been handed on to Rio, which will, I am sure, do a wonderful job in 2016 and take the Games to even greater heights.  London 2012 has been fantastic, an eye-opening experience for even the most jaded Londoners and I’m sure that somewhere out there, a future generation of Olympians has been inspired.  I’m also sure that I’m not one of them and not just because I’m old, untalented and slothful.

My overriding impression having finished The Secret Olympian is that being an Olympic athlete and even a medallist may well not be all it’s cracked up to be.  What Anon, the unnamed member of the British team at the Athens Games of 2004, does is to give us an incredible insight into the life and  mind of an elite level  athlete in an Olympic sport.  And it’s not all that pretty.

The picture he (and it is clear from the text that he is male - without wanting to rain on his parade, I strongly suspect he was a member of the 2004 rowing squad) draws is one of monkish self-discipline, impecuniousness, the paradox of superb physical specimens being highly susceptible to illness, the stress of selection, the self-doubt and the constant fear that a loss of form or a minor niggle can cost you your place on the team.  It comes as little surprise that, for many Olympians, the first reaction on being selected is one of relief and not joy.

Even the Olympic Village, portrayed recently as Party Central, is not what it seems.  All of the partying appears to be as much a temporary escape from reality as anything and, according to Anon, for all but the lucky few who win a medal, it becomes a place for soul-searching and regrets.  And for the prurient amongst us, he demolishes the urban myth of the village being filled with athletes fornicating like rabbits for it appears that the huge numbers of condoms provided to the athletes are actually collected in bulk by athletes from certain countries for resale when they get home.

The Secret Olympian is also a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of an Olympics, from selection, through the fun of the kitting out day, to the experience of competition and dealing with the aftermath, whether win or lose.  Anon dispels some common assumptions, such as the concept that Olympians are all sporting prodigies - indeed, many Olympic athletes were actually pretty useless at the sports they first played at school and almost accidentally fall into the sports that will bring them success.  There is also some pouring of cold water on the idea that a gold medal will lead to wealth and fame.  Save for the all-tine greats, even a gold medalist has a four year window of opportunity to capitalise on their success before a new crop of medalists come along with a new set of backstories and a fresher set of faces.

If you have been, like me, captivated by the events of the last 16 days or, if you are at least a little but interested in sport, this will be an enjoyable read.  It only reinforces the fact that I could never have been a high level sportsman but gives an idea of what it is like to be one.  It's not always a pretty view but, nevertheless, I'll still dream of being on that podium.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012 - Some Literary Places To Visit

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past six weeks, you will know that the Olympic Games are being held in my home town, London, right now.  After a magnificently bonkers opening ceremony that appears to have impressed and perplexed in equal measure, the sport has so far been brilliant and my experience of the Olympic Park yesterday filled me with patriotic pride as the organisation was flawless, the transport system didn’t collapse and the various volunteers, armed forces personnel and police officers on duty were friendly and welcoming.  If you are here already or are visiting at some point over the next fortnight, you are in for a great time, despite London’s changeable weather.  As a Londoner, I’m incredibly proud of my city so far and have definitely drunk the Olympic kool-aid, even though, as a confirmed Olympics junkie, I needed little encouragement.

One interesting aspect of the Games is that London is simply not as crowded as everyone imagined it would be.  Walking along the South Bank earlier today, it was noticeably quieter than a normal summer weekend and, for the first time I can remember, there was no queue for entry to the London Dungeon.  I was reminded of the conversation I had with a taxi driver in Athens when I was at the 2004 Olympics.  He told me that the hype and expectation around the Games had put “ordinary” tourists from visiting the city both before and during the Games that year.  Although I have no empirical evidence to support it, I suspect we may be experiencing the same effect here – there are certainly hotel rooms to be had at non-extortionate rates and restaurant tables are nowhere near as scarce as I had thought they would be.  In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that this might, perversely, be a good time to visit London even if you aren’t a sports fan.
And, if you do, or if you are already here and have some spare time in between the sport, I thought I’d give you some suggestions for things to see.  So here are ten great literary places to visit in London this summer.  Please come and join us – it’s turning into a wonderful summer.

1.            The British Library.  A copy of every book published in the United Kingdom is required by law to be deposited at the British Library.  Consequently, if you can get a reader’s ticket (not actually too difficult), it is a treasure chest for the reader.  For the more casual visitor, there is a permanent gallery, the Sir John Ritblatt, which displays many of the most interesting items in the Library’s collections, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  There are also special exhibitions which this summer include Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands.  This examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate classic literature.  This exhibition features original manuscripts for woks like Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  A second summer exhibition , Collecting the Olympic Games, tells the story of the Games through memorabilia.  There is a good café and it’s a pleasant place to sit outside on a sunny day.

2.            The Globe Theatre.  It’s a bit obvious but it’s also unmissable.  The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre gives a real flavour of the Jacobean theatre-going experience and is a centre for the exploration of Shakespeare’s writings and world.  Even if you can’t get tickets, you can still tour the theatre and there are often special events which, this summer, include Midnight Matinees, a chance to watch Shakespeare under London’s midnight sky, followed by a post-play breakfast.

3.            221B Baker Street.  Elementary,  my dear reader.  Of course, there was never an actual 221B Baker Street during the period when Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the Sherlock Holmes stories but it is, nevertheless, one of London’s most famous addresses. When Baker Street was extended, the Abbey National building society inhabited 219-229 Baker Street and so ended up receiving correspondence addressed to the great consulting detective.  Indeed, they ended up employing a full-time secretary to answer his mail.  The Abbey National is no longer there and mail now goes to the fun but inauthentic Sherlock Holmes Museum, situated at 237-241 Baker Street.  It’s a fun visit anyway.

4.            The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, WC2.  Reputedly the inspiration for Little Nell’s home in Dickens’ novel, this shop, protected by a preservation order, is London’s oldest shop, dating from the 1560s, and is an interesting glimpse into how London would have looked in the 16th Century.  Unfortunately,  it is almost certainly not really Dickens’ inspiration.

5.            Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.  In the South Transept of the Abbey, this area contains the graves of British literary figures such as Chaucer, Spenser, Hardy, Kipling and Dickens, together with memorials to others such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Austen and the Brontës.  You’ll probably be in the area at some point anyway so you’d be remiss to miss it.

6.            84 Charing Cross Road.  Somewhat improbably, a book based on the correspondence between Helene Hanff, an American author, and the staff of a bookshop at this address was made into a hit film in the 1980s.  A plaque now commemorates this, although it is no longer a bookshop.  Never fear, though, because Charing Cross Road still contains a number of fascinating specialist and second-hand bookshops in which you can lose hours in browsing and could come away with a bargain in the process.

7.            Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street.  Although the journalists who used to populate Fleet Street, once the home of Britain’s newspapers, have long gone, this old pub, dating from the 18th Century, endures.  It still reputedly houses Dr Johnson’s chair and was a haunt of, amongst others, Thackeray, Dickens, Conan Doyle and Chesterton.  A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without supping a pint in a proper London pub now, would it?

8.            The Red Lion, 20 Great Windmill Street, Soho.  I can see a theme developing here but this pub, in the heart of Soho, was the place where Marx and Engels gave lectures in an upstairs room and, later, wrote the Communist Manifesto.  Funny to think that a piece that had so much impact on the world was written here by a couple of blokes drinking warm, English bitter!

9.            The Pillars of Hercules, 7 Greek Street, Soho.  Yes, definitely a theme here.  This tiny pub, tucked away in Soho has been a hangout of, amongst others, Casanova, De Quincey, Barnes and Ian McEwen.  It gets a name check in A Tale of Two Cities and, ahem, was a former drinking spot of yours truly.  Must be worth a visit.

10.          Foyles Book Shop, Charing Cross Road.  Within easy staggering distance of the Pillars of Hercules, Foyles is a massive, confusing, disorganised but brilliant bookshop.  I suspect there are readers who, having wandered in to the shop, fail to emerge for days, engrossed in the browsing opportunities therein.  If you want a specific book, it’s probably there, the trick is finding it without picking up half a dozen other books on the way.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten fictional worlds or setings

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the folks at the Broke and the Bookish asks us to list our top ten vivid worlds or settings from literature. I’m glad I actually re-read the topic before bashing out my list as I had mistakenly read it as my top ten favourite settings which would have given me a much different list!

Anyway, without further ado, let the list begin:

1.         Middle Earth. Come on!  If it’s not on your list, then you can’t have read the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit.  And if not, then why not?  After all, this is a world that essentially created the template for almost all modern fantasy novels.  Even the ones that are consciously non-Tolkienish often define themselves by their attempt not to be Tolkienish.  This is a world with immensely detailed geography, an obsessive attention to detail and several properly constructed languages.  There is even an argument to say that the novels and the world were created merely so the languages would have some place in which to be rooted.  I humbly submit that Middle Earth is the quintessence of vivid literary setting.

2.         The Multiverse.  I truly believe that Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle is one of the most underrated pieces of literature of the 20th Century.  Although a mixture of fantasy and steampunk novels, the underlying themes, thought and style go way beyond the pure “genre”.  The base concept of a warrior doomed to be endlessly reincarnated to fight for the maintenance of the cosmic balance between law and chaos (not good and evil!) is genius and the varied worlds he created stand comparison with almost any others in fantasy literature.

3.         Neverland.  Despite being darker than its Disneyfied cartoon representation, who amongst us would not like to fly off to Neverland and enjoy eternal childhood with Peter, the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell whilst battling Captain Hook and his sidekicks?

4.         Narnia.  Come, walk with me.  Let’s see what’s at the back of this wardrobe.  Oh look, a door.  Whither does it lead?  To a new world full of wonders – and Turkish delight!  Loved the Narnia books as a child.

5.         Airstrip One.  Orwell’s Oceanian province of Airstrip One (an avatar of London) is not somewhere I’d like to live or even visit but is an iconic dystopian setting.  Chilling and in many subtle ways prophetic, it’s a classic setting.

6.         Bookworld.  Jasper Fforde’s fictional book world is clever, fun and ever so slightly insane.  I could equally have included his alternative Swindon, Thursday Next’s other home but settled on Bookworld as its true “otherness” makes it a little more vivid for me.

7.         Discworld.  Oh yes, indeed.   Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has grown and deepened over the course of the 39 novels set here and it is now one of the most richly drawn worlds in fantasy literature.

8.         Lankhmar.  The main city setting for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fantasy series, this fictional setting brings back good childhood memories of reading his books.  Classic swords and sorcery pulp they may be but they were fun to read as a 12 year old.

9.         Callahan’s Place.  This is the bar I’d love to fall into, inhabited by friendly locals who are always willing to lend an ear to sort out the problems of other visitors even if they are vampires, aliens, time travellers or even mythological figures.  Spider Robinson’s quirky stories are really good fun and I’d recommend them as a light read.

10.       The Nightside.  In Simon Green’s fictional world, it’s always 3 o’clock in the morning.  The Nightside is a place where anything goes  - as John Taylor, the main character ion the series says, it’s "a place where dreams come true and nightmares come alive. Where one can buy anything, often at the price of your soul... or someone else's. Where the music never stops and the fun never ends".  The Nightside novels are a dark blend of PI fiction, fantasy and science fiction and are highly entertaining.  I wouldn’t want to go there but the Nightside makes for great light reading.