Sunday, September 29, 2013

2,445: The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi (A Burton & Swinburne Adventure) by Mark Hodder

I need to make two qualifications to this review.  Firstly, I haven’t read any of the previous three Burton & Swinburne novels.  This may have left me at a disadvantage.  Knowing that there had been three previous adventures in the series meant that I was thrown slightly by Burton apparently meeting Swinburne for the first time in what is the fourth in the series.  I also suspect that The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is much better read as a continuation of the series than as a stand-alone novel – in fact, I have a nagging feeling that I may have missed all sorts of points.

Secondly, I’m not much of a steampunk fan.  I love Michael Moorcock and his forays into the genre but, although steampunk should, in theory, appeal to my tastes, in practice I’ve found it difficult to get into.  Again, this may be because I’ve been trying the wrong books or because my expectations of the genre are too great but I came to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi with an odd mixture of hope and apprehension.

The backdrop to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is an alternate Victorian England in which, inter alia, Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840, Germany became unified in the 1850s (rather than following the Franco-Prussian war), Richard Burton received the credit he was due for having discovered the source of the Nile (with Speke dying and not beating him back to England) and technological marvels such as airships, rotorchairs and primitive computers and robots are part of life.

The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi opens with Burton returning by airship from Africa suffering from malaria and a kind of breakdown as well as having to deal with the ritualistic murder of one of his companions.  Once back in London, he is knighted, reunited with his fiancée, Isabelle, and appointed king’s agent (with Victoria having been assassinated, George V is the reigning monarch).  A number of prominent scientists and other personages including Charles Babbage and Florence Nightingale have disappeared and Burton’s mission is to find out what has happened to them.  He is also made party to the stunning secret that, since Victoria’s death, the British government has been receiving advice from a spirit, Abdu El-Yezdi, who has masterminded Britain’s renaissance and is working to bring about a rapprochement between Britain and Germany.  Unfortunately, Abdu El-Yezdi has disappeared too, adding another complexity to Burton’s mission.

Revealing any more of the plot would almost certainly risk detracting from one’s enjoyment of the book, save to say that a complicated plot unwinds thereafter culminating in some heavy action and a major twist at the end.

Hodder crams his story full of literary allusions including references to Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein and Dracula.  The latter in particular is almost a sub-text in itself, with a young Bram Stoker appearing as Burton’s valet and the plot itself involving a nosferatu (a type of vampire) in a foreshadowing of the yet to be written Dracula.

Similarly, The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is a grab-bag of 19th Century historical figures, both major and minor.  As many of them are portrayed differently from their real characters, Hodder provides a handy and lengthy dramatis personae section at the end.  I’d advise leaving this to the end rather than dipping into as the book progresses to avoid spoiling the surprises.

As all this may be suggesting, Hodder’s greatest strength lies in his intricate world-building and playful subversion of history.  His Victorian London has a real steampunk vibe and combines more or less accurate historical nuggets with manipulations of other events, both in fact and time.  This is where my lack of familiarity of his previous Burton & Swinburne novels may have limited my enjoyment of The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi as I had a sense that many of the events referenced back to the earlier books – references I clearly didn’t get.

Unfortunately, the book is so heavily driven by the plot (and Hodder’s numerous sub-plots, which were well-organised and didn’t confuse the main storyline) and the world-building that the characterisations and writing style have been neglected.  Although the contrasts in Burton and Swinburne’s personalities made for an interesting relationship, the characters in general were a little flat and, in particular, the few female characters seemed curiously formless.  Likewise, the writing style was a little lifeless and functioned only to move the plot forward.  Fortunately, the plot and Hodder’s world are interesting enough for this not to matter too much.

I found The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi quite difficult to get into, which may be the result of my ambivalent attitude to steampunk, and I almost gave up after the first third.  I’m glad I persevered though as the pace picked up, I got my head round the timeline and it just got a whole lot better.
If you are a fan of Hodder’s other books, I’m sure you’ll love this, as will steampunk fans, Victorian history and literature lovers and aficionados of the esoteric.  I’m not sure others will appreciate it so much and I’d very much recommend having read the first three of the series before this one.

Thank you to the publishers, Ebury, for allowing me to read The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi through Netgalley.

Friday, September 20, 2013

2,446: The Pimp by Giorgio Faletti

“I’m Bravo.  And I don’t have a dick.”

I was pretty much pre-disposed to enjoy Giorgio Faletti’s The Pimp (A Pimp’s Notes in America) as soon as I read the opening line and I’m glad to say that my pre-disposition was borne out by what followed.

Giorgio Faletti is a well-known Italian comedian and actor who has also written seven novels, of which four have been translated into English.  The Pimp, the most recent of these four, is set in Milan in the late 1970s, at the same time as the kidnapping of the former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, the period when Faletti was a regular at the Derby, a leading Milan cabaret.

The titular character, Bravo, is indeed a man who makes his living from procuring women for his clients.  He took up his less than salubrious profession after his own manhood was sliced off with a razor by the minions of a Mafia boss whose girlfriend Bravo had foolishly slept with.  His life is relatively straightforward, if sleazy and soul-deadening, until a party for which he has supplied the female company is targeted by assassins who murder all those present.  From that moment, Bravo finds himself at the centre of a complex plot that results in him being hunted by the Red Brigades, the police and the Mafia.

The story is told from Bravo’s perspective and in a kind of Euro-Chandleresque voice, combining noir with a penchant for world-weary semi-philosophising, all of which works well unless you pause a moment too long to ponder the meaning of some of his sayings.  Fortunately, the plot is engaging, satisfyingly complex and carries the reader forward.

Having said that the plot is complex, it is important to point out that this does not mean convoluted; Faletti creates a spider’s web of seemingly unconnected facts and happenings and manages to weave them together in a way that both maintains the suspense whilst being very clear in its workings.  There isn’t a moment where you feel confused as to what’s happening but, equally, the pay-off of the denouement is worth it.  Faletti’s other real knack is of planting small and seemingly unimportant nuggets in the narrative that end up becoming surprisingly significant, often in unexpected ways, which adds an extra layer to the enjoyability of The Pimp.

The ending of The Pimp has a little too much neat coincidence for my personal taste but there is much to admire in this book, including a surprisingly emotional and reflective undercurrent in Bravo’s character.  Ultimately, The Pimp is a superior thriller, blending a noir feel and a demi-monde setting with Italian politics.

I’d like to thank Constable & Robinson (whose crime list is absolutely first-rate) for sending me a copy of The Pimp for review.

Monday, September 16, 2013

2,447: Stalin's General by Geoffrey Roberts

For the British (and, possibly, American) reader, there’s a section in Armageddon, Max Hastings’ masterful account of the last year or so of WW2 in Europe, where the author contemptuously dismisses the military qualities of almost all of the leading British and American generals of the time.  Indeed, pretty much only Eisenhower, Montgomery and Patton emerge with even faint praise, although even this is tempered with much criticism.  Counterpointed with his comments on the superiority of the German armed forces, it comes as no surprise that Hastings points to the Red Army as the real victors of the land war in Europe.  In summary, he believes that the Soviets supplied the blood, the Americans the equipment and the British contribution was to hold out in 1940.

Given all of this, and that for most of the War, Georgy Zhukov was the Soviet Union’s leading professional soldier, it is arguable that Zhukov was the general most responsible for the ultimate defeat of Germany in 1945.  Present at pretty much all of the most significant battles on the Eastern Front (including the siege of Leningrad and the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk), Zhukov’s forces won the race to Berlin and it was troops under his command who placed the red flag atop the Reichstag building.  Named Deputy Supreme Commander, Stalin permitted Zhukov the honour of taking the victory parade in Red Square, sitting astride a white charger.

And yet, within a year of this zenith, he was in disgrace and banished by Stalin to a military backwater until Stalin’s death and his rehabilitation by Khruschev which culminated in his appointment as Minister for Defence, followed almost inevitably by further disgrace and dismissal.  Suffering the reputational trashing that followed, Zhukov lapsed into obscurity until the replacement of Khruschev by Brezhnev gave him the opportunity to reclaim his reputation and to write a self-serving autobiography before dying in 1974.  Since then, his iconic status has remained untouched and, in 1995, a statue of Zhukov on the famous white stallion was erected in Red Square itself.

In totalitarian regimes such as the old Soviet Union, history becomes a political tool of the regime and it can be difficult to know where truth lies.  This is doubly so in Zhukov’s case with his rises and falls from grace and his sometimes unreliable memoirs.

It is, therefore, welcome that Geoffrey Roberts, given access to previously unpublished Russian archive material, has written a new biography, seeking to readdress Zhukov’s position in Soviet history and to give a more accurate portrayal of the man.

In many ways, Zhukov was a prototypical Soviet success story, the child of a proletarian family who climbed to the very top of Soviet society through a mixture of talent, hard work, luck and political reliability.  A dedicated communist, he was a brilliant offensive general, skilled in the use of deception as a tactic and Stalin’s favourite general, given a latitude not extended to other generals and used almost as a troubleshooter, being sent off to any major situation.

The flip side was that he was arrogant and keen to make certain that he received full credit for his successes - traits that led directly to both his falls from grace and ensured that there was no shortage of rivals and colleagues ready to criticise him and trample on his reputation at the right time.

Zhukov could also be fairly accused of taking a cavalier attitude towards the lives of the men under his command and of only being concerned with body counts to the extent they impacted on the effectiveness of his forces.  He could also be a bully and appeared to take a tolerant view of the campaign of rape that the Red Army waged across Germany in 1945.  Another criticism is that his impact on Soviet military doctrine and theory was limited - a criticism I find slightly unfair.  After all, the mark of a wartime general lies in his victories and, in this, Zhukov was unsurpassed in WW2 and ranks alongside any Russian or Soviet military leader of any period.

Roberts does not shy away from these criticisms and also exposes the lies and exaggerations that Zhukov makes in his memoirs in defence of his reputation.  Yet, despite his stated intention of writing a critical biography, it is clear that Roberts is positively disposed to Zhukov and, where differences of opinion arise, tends to give Zhukov the benefit of the doubt.  One should not forget, however, that Zhukov for all his positive qualities and his relative independence from Stalin was a committed communist and follower of Stalin whose last action as a military leader was to mastermind the uncompromising suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Stalin’s General does an excellent job of retelling Zhukov’s life story and setting it in its true historical context.  Roberts also succeeds in reconciling the competing claims for credit made by leading figures such as Stalin, Khruschev, Konev and Rokossovsky.

What it doesn’t quiet manage to do, however, is to give much insight into the personal life or the mind of Zhukov.  Roberts does make some attempt to do this and we do learn about his somewhat complicated love life - four children, two wives and a long term lover - but at the end, he is still something of a mystery as a human being.  Given the exigencies of Soviet politics and history and the inadvisability of writing down unedited thoughts, it is, of course, possible that Roberts has done as much as will ever be possible along these lines.

Roberts rates Zhukov as top of a kind of military geeky league table of Soviet and Russian generals and, whilst it is probably impossible to make definitive judgements across time, it is certain that, in Zhukov’s sometimes brutal but effective manner, the Soviet Union got the general it needed to win the long drawn out existential battle that was the Eastern Front.

Stalin’s General is an interesting and necessary biography of one of the most significant figures of WW2 and a “must read” to anyone interested in this period or, more generally, in Russian history.  Whether it becomes the definitive biography probably depends upon whether there is any as-yet undiscovered archival material out there that could shed more light on the inner Zhukov.

I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

2,448: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

It’s been billed as “the only thriller you need to read this year” and, ignoring the issue of where the emphasis should rest in that statement, it’s a pretty big and ballsy claim, especially when backed up with a big publicity campaign and some pretty decent word of mouth.  So, does I Am Pilgrim live up to it.

Well, not quite, although that’s not to say that it isn’t a good read.  It’s just that it’s not so much better than other thrillers I’ve read this year that it quite warrants the hyperbole.

I don’t particularly want to say a huge amount about the plot as, firstly, it’s pretty convoluted and so any synopsis will either not do it justice or will be too confusing to be of any value.  Secondly, I did like the way the author develops the plot from a really skilful opening scene onwards - although certain passages of the book can appear a bit standard thrillerish, the overall story arc is not so predictable.

So, I’ll just restrict myself to saying that the book opens in a down-market New York hotel room where the NYPD have discovered a young woman gruesomely murdered and disposed of in a bath of acid.  All forensic evidence in the room has been removed or destroyed.  It looks like the perfect murder, a fact that disturbs a civilian observer of the scene.  Why?  Because he has, quite literally, written the book on how to commit the perfect murder.

Intrigued?  Well, from this beginning the reader is taken on a breakneck-paced journey which takes in three continents, several more countries, over thirty years of history and at least three sub-plots, all whilst jumping from action scene to puzzle-solving and from the hero’s point of view to the villain’s perspective stuff.  It’s heady, adrenaline-pumping stuff and, given that the book runs to around 700 pages, it’s credit to the author that it never drags or sags.

The author, Terry Hayes, is actually a Hollywood screenwriter (I Am Pilgrim is his debut novel) so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that his command of action is so good or that I Am Pilgrim has an action film flavour to it as his credits include Mad Max 2 and Payback.

Although Hayes occasionally dips into the bag of thriller clichés - there are a few stock thriller character types and some of the main characters are given butch sounding nicknames - on the whole the plotting and the characters are believable and capable of holding the reader’s attention.  I would point out that the ethical systems and decision-making of some of the main characters including, notably, Pilgrim himself, the book’s hero, inhabit the grey areas of life and some readers who prefer a less utilitarian outlook from their action heroes may find Pilgrim unsympathetic.

Personally, after getting used to it, I found Pilgrim’s way of thinking rather refreshing, especially as it came as part of a conflicted and morally troubled character package that made him a more original and interesting protagonist and the ways in which Pilgrim and his antagonist, Saracen, had developed from their troubled childhoods formed a nice contrast and sub-theme.

I’m not sure if there’s a particular message to be gleaned from I Am Pilgrim but there seemed to be a clear undertone that America has a right to deal with its perceived enemies in whatever way it thinks fit which might have been offputting had it not been for the fact that it also seemed to be pointing at Pilgrim and saying,” and this is what can happen to those caught up in our fight against our enemies.”

Look, the bottom line with I Am Pilgrim is that it’s a high octane thriller with an excellent plot, some well-developed characters and enough originality to lift it well above most of its competitors.  It had me sitting up late at night and eating my lunch away from my desk as it was so gripping and that’s got to be a good thing.

The only thriller you need to read this year? No, but it’s definitely a thriller you should read this year.

I'd like to thank Transworld for allowing me to read I Am Pilgrim through Netgalley.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2,449: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen

There are two ironies in the very title of Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  The first and more obvious irony is that, for most Soviet citizens during much of the Soviet period, the culinary art that needed to be mastered most was the art of obtaining food.  The second irony, which can only be grasped by anyone who reads this marvellous book, is that cooking is really just a thread onto which she strings a family memoir and a history of the Soviet Union like jewels on a necklace.

The book’s framework is the recreation by von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa (the true hero of the book) of a representative meal from each decade of the Soviet period, commencing with a celebratory end of era Romanov meal.  Onto this skeleton, she then weaves the story of her extraordinary family together with a more general history of the Soviet Union and a more detailed analysis of the food and cooking of each decade.

I will confess that, with both food and Russian history being particular interests of mine, von Bremzen would have struggled to lose my interest but there was never any danger of that occurring given the quality of her storytelling.

It helps that the two branches of her family contain a wonderfully eclectic mix of characters from Larisa, who appears to have been a natural born dissident to her grandfather Naum, a senior Soviet intelligence officer throughout the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as it’s known in Russia) and from her father, Sergei, an unreliable spouse who at one time was responsible for monitoring the colour of Lenin’s embalmed corpse to her great great grandmother Anna Aleevna, a fiery idealist who fought for women’s rights in Turkestan in the early days of the Soviet Union but who ended her life broken and disowned in Siberia, having been sent to the gulag by Stalin.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking reads like a Tolstoyan family epic, sweeping across time and geography and tracing out the lives of the vivid individuals who make and made up the author’s extended family.  Her family story takes us from the Caucasus to the Ukraine to meet some of her Jewish relatives and their heritage and from her various family homes in Moscow to the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.

There’s also something telescopic about the way that Von Bremzen combines this panoramic story with intimate and detailed family stories such as the story of how Larisa lost the ration book during the Second World War – an event that usually spelt starvation and death for the family concerned – and learnt how to deal in the black market or the incredible story of Naum’s narrow escape from arrest during one of Stalin’s purges.

And as for the food, given that this is styled “a memoir of food and longing”?  Well, von Bremzen makes it clear from the beginning that this is no trawl through high gastronomy by pointing out, ““besides sosiski [Soviet hot dog sausages] with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.”

Instead, the central food-related themes are those of the struggle to obtain food: the rationing, the queuing, the failures of central planning, the Krushchevian obsession with corn, the near starvation of the Yeltsin years and the actual starvation in the Ukraine following collectivisation.  It’s the impact of Soviet totalitarianism on even the basic social structures of eating with the communal apartments and shared kitchens and the public canteens.

I think that the use of food as the central thread by the author is beautifully appropriate, given the importance that obtaining enough to eat assumed for most Soviets.  But von Bremzen goes further, linking individual Soviet leaders to particular foodstuffs and drawing from this parallels with their leadership.  So, we have Stalin’s championing of Soviet “champagne”, an ersatz product that was designed to demonstrate abundance and that Soviet quality of life was high – when the reality was one of fear, shortage and lack of quality.  Khrushchev is, inevitably, associated with corn and his failed attempt to use it as a miracle grain to solve the problem of poor harvests.  Like Khrushchev himself, it was doomed to failure.

In many ways, food embodies some of the key historical themes of the Soviet Union – from the brutal farm collectivisations and requisitioning of Lenin’s times, to the rationing and hunger of the Second World War and from the failures of the Khruschev years to provide the consumer goods to Russians that were becoming ubiquitous in the US to the quixotic and disastrous anti-alcohol policies of Gorbachev that would contribute to his unpopularity in the Soviet Union and its ultimate demise.

Stalin looms large over proceedings in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and I find it interesting that, no matter from what angle one views the Soviet Union, the vozhd becomes the dominant presence, even more so that Lenin himself.  One of my favourite stories in the book is of Stalin sending his faithful sidekick Anastas Mikoyan to the US to investigate what the American s are eating and how he comes back to introduce the hamburger (sans bun) and ice cream to the Soviet people.  It’s an almost picaresque story that I found reminiscent of the episode in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son where a North Korean delegation makes a trip to meet a US senator at this ranch in Texas.  The story itself is good but, as with all the stories in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Von Bremzen tells it well.

Since her move to America, von Bremzen has carved out a successful career as a food writer and has won two James Beard awards for previous books.  She deserves to win further accolades for this one.

I’d like to thank Crown Publishers for sending me a review copy of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

2,450: The Gilded Edge by Danny Miller

The Gilded Edge is Danny Miller’s second novel featuring Metropolitan Police detective Vince Treadwell but the first I’ve read.  In truth, I probably would never have come across it but for its publisher, Constable & Robinson kindly sending me a review copy, for which I’m terribly grateful, both for the fact that I enjoy receiving books for review and for the fact that it’s simply an excellent crime novel.

Set in pre-summer of love (but after the year sex began according to Larkin), events in The Gilded Edge take place in a London that is dark, edgy and bubbling with social revolution.  Two separate murders take place on the same night but in very different circumstances.  Jonny Beresford, aristocrat, investment banker and socialite gambler, has been found shot in the basement of his Belgravia residence, surrounded by empty champagne and hash.  A few miles away, in downmarket Notting Hill, a black nurse is found in the hall of her block of flats with the back of her head bashed in by a frenzied hammer attack and her young daughter hiding under a bed upstairs.

Although the murders initially seem unconnected, Vince’s investigations begin to uncover connections between the two and, defying pressure from his bosses, he starts digging into the affairs of a group of wealthy and connected members of the Montcler Club, a Mayfair gaming club and, in parallel, the affairs of a Jamaican gang and its boss, a wannabe Malcolm X.

As well as being tightly plotted and peopled with vivid yet believable characters, Miller’s strength lies in his descriptive ability - the violence feels real, the brothels seedy and his sense of place and time is immaculate.  I’ve thought for a long time that there are certain authors who can convey a true sense of understanding and feeling for a specific place and, when it comes to London Miller seems to be one of those writers - like Dickens, China Miéville, Christopher Fowler and Peter Ackroyd.  The Gilded Edge simply oozes with London atmosphere.

Miller’s version of ‘60s London is a wonderful swirling kaleidoscope of violence, sleaze, corruption and poverty contrasting with wealth, sophistication, colour and the explosion of creativity and hedonism that marked the birth of the Swinging Sixties.  We meet the aristocrats “roughing it” for fun, the working class looking to move on up, the West Indian immigrants adopting a political consciousness from the USA, the Soho and East London gangsters and the grand clash and cross-fertilisation of British sub-cultures that came about from the breakdown of traditional boundaries.  Miller does brilliant job of capturing all of this, resulting in a densely packed novel.

Vince Treadwell, Miler’s hero, is one of those working class young men on the rise.  He wears sharp suits, mixes happily with the toffs, is a bit “handy” and has a moderately rebellious and independent streak about him.  All of this makes him an appealing and interesting protagonist, especially when the narration is as sardonic and blunt as Miller’s.

Miller clearly has a real knowledge of the period and uses this liberally in the book.  In particular, the Montcler Club and some of the central characters in the book are closely based on the Clermont Club (do you see what he did there?), notorious for having Lord Lucan as one of its leading lights.  Lucky himself is one of the main characters in The Gilded Edge and Miller doesn’t paint a pretty picture of him.  Another of the characters, Jimmy Asper is a clear analogue for John Aspinall, the owner of the Clermont, right down to the interest in wildlife and the private zoo.  The late Lord Goldsmith also has a starring role as financier Simon Goldsachs (spot the double play on words in his surname).  Although spotting the references was fun, the thinness of some of the disguises began to get a little in the way of the plot.  This is a minor gripe, however, and I loved the cameo roles Miller gave to people like Brian Jones and Billy Hill.

Although it’s not perfect (there’s a couple of minor anachronisms), this is a damn fine thriller that deserves to sell by the bucketful (and, frankly, is screaming out to be made into a film by Guy Ritchie!).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Top Fifty Children's Books - The Final Instalment

Well, we’re now at the end of my fifty favourite childhood books and thank you very much if you’ve persevered with me over the course of these five posts.  The Falaise family arrived back from our French sojourn on Friday night and, once mini-Falaise’s birthday and first day of school are done with next week, we’ll be saying farewell to what has been a pretty fine summer and looking forward to the joys of autumn and winter – Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and then Christmas.  All of which should mean I’ll be able to post more frequently and regularly from now on – and maybe even catch up with some of my massive backlog of reviews.

Anyway, back to the task in hand…… are numbers 41-50 in my list.

41.          The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz.  Like a couple of others on this list, this isn’t exactly a children’s book but it does seem to be a book that children enjoy – indeed, when we were looking around a prospective school for mini-Falaise last year, the headmaster was just starting to read it with some of the pupils.  It’s the story of how the author, a Polish army lieutenant, had escaped from a Soviet POW camp in 1941 and escaped to India across the Gobi desert.  I loved this book as a child and I hate to have to break this to anyone else who loved it that, according to Soviet archival material, the story is untrue.

42.          The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams.  Apart from the fact that this story is indubitably true, this book falls into the same category as The Long Walk and tells the story of the Allied escape attempt from Stalag Luft III in WWII, using a tunnel dug under a wooden gym horse.  It’s exciting stuff.

43.          The Dribblesome Teapot and Other Incredible Stories by Norman Hunter.  I’d quite forgotten about this until I did some internet memory-jogging for this list.  It’s basically a collection of ten pretty eccentric tales with kings and queens and countries called things like Kumdown Upwardz and Urgburg under Ug and it’s great fun.

44.          Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden.  This is a classic children’s novel about Carrie, a young girl evacuated to Wales with her brother in WWII and the strange families they end up living with.  It’s really quite dark and mysterious.

45.          The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  One of the great retellings of the story of King Arthur.  I recall that I much preferred the Sword in the Stone, the first of the four books that make up this cycle.

46.          The Adventures of Robin Hood by either Richard Green or Roger Lancelyn Green.  I can’t remember the author of my childhood copy of this and the internet credits both Greens with having written a version so I’ll hedge my bets.  In any event, the Robin Hood story remains a classic and I lapped it up as a child.

47.          Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr.  In writing this list, I’ve been
intrigued that so many of the books I read in the ‘70s and very early ‘80s had actually been written decades previously – and not just the obvious ‘classics’.  This collection of stories was written in the ‘50s and remains fresh today.  I’m looking forward to reading this one with mini-Falaise soon.

48.          Asterix and the Olympic Games by Goscinny and Uderzo.  I was in two minds whether to include this as I’m a huge Asterix (and Tintin) fan and get irrationally annoyed when they are dismissed as children’s comic strips because the humour is so clever.  Anyway, as a child, my parents disapproved of comics and so I wasn’t allowed Asterix.  But, one day, my mother and I were in WH Smith in Stevenage (I led a glamorous life) and I saw this in a black and white paperback novel-sized format.  I showed to Mama Falaise who, failing to inspect the inside of the book, assumed it was a written version of Asterix and allowed me to buy it.  Result!  How I cherished that book.  The coda to this is that, later, my parents relented and finally allowed me to buy Asterix………in French.

49.          Chikdren’s versions of the Odyssey and Iliad.  I don’t know who adapted the Originals but I had abridged and adapted versions of both these and absolutely loved them.  As with Roger Lancelyn Green’s books, they instilled a love for myth and legend that persists today and probably also contributed to my enjoyment of fantasy and even sci-fi.  It also proved a precursor for my education as I ended up reading both in the original Greek as part of my Greek A-level work.

50.          A Book Whose Name I’ve Forgotten.  The plot of this book revolves around a schoolboy who discovers that there is a secret criminal society made up of some of the girls in his school and that only he can save the school from them.  It was a great book that I borrowed from the local library many times.  The thing is that I can’t remember either the title or the author and, try as I might, I can’t track them down on line.  If anyone recognises this, please, please let me know as it is really bugging me.

And there we have it – my 50 favourite childhood books.  I’m sure I’ve left out loads that I’ve forgotten and that I’ll probably remember as soon as I press the publish button but it’s a pretty solid list and I’ve enjoyed the trip down memory lane while writing these posts.