Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2,213: Rasputin - A Short Life by Frances Welch

Despite (or maybe because of!) the awful '70s ear worm by Boney M, I, like millions of others have a fascination with the story of Rasputin, the hairy and insanitary but, apparently, sexually irresistible monk who came out of Siberia to wield extraordinary influence over the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia.

There's something almost Grand Guignol-esque about Rasputin's story, retold vividly by Frances Welch in this short and highly enjoyable biography.  It's the story of a peasant from a village in the depths of Siberia who, one day, abandons his wife and children to go and stay in a monastery, from which he emerges as a religious mystic.  Traveling to Kazan and then to Kiev, he attracts the attention of high-ranking Russian Orthodox clerics, including the splendidly monikered Theophanes of Poltava, occasional confessor of the Tsar and Tsarina.  Theophanes then introduces him to the Grand Duchesses Milica and Anastasia who, buying in to his reputation  as having healing powers, recommend him to the Tsarina as being able to help the Tsarevich, Alexei, a haemophiliac.

Although there is no evidence that he really was possessed of healing powers, Rasputin did actually appear to be able to help with Alexei's illness and he rapidly becomes a favourite of both the Tsar and Tsarina.  Taking full advantage of this, Rasputin becomes notorious in St Petersburg for drunkenness and depravity, selling his influence with the royal couple for money and sexual favours from his "little ladies" and is thought to have Svengali-like influence over the Tsar and, especially, the Tsarina, whose lover he is rumoured to be.

Finally, having made enemies everywhere, he survives several assassination attempts until, on the night of 29 December 1916 (modern calendar), Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri, two former friends and associates of Rasputin, lure him to Prince Yusupov's palace where, having got him drunk, they poison him and then, when the poison seems not to be having any effect, Yusupov and another conspirator shoot him several times before the body is dumped in the river Neva.

Rasputin's story has all the ingredients of a good, schlocky melodrama - weird mystical villain, sex, violence, aristocrats and royals and it even has its own spooky sting in the tail as, shortly before his death, he wrote Tsar Nicholas a letter, in which he predicted:

“If my death will be staged by your relatives, then none of your family members, none of your children or relatives will remain alive for more than two years. All will be killed by the Russian people. And I will be killed too. I’m not among the living anymore. Please, I beg you, be strong! Think of your blessed family.” 

His death did, indeed, come at the hands of junior members of the Romanov family and, as we all know, on 17 July 1918, less than two years after Rasputin's murder, the Tsar, Tsarina and their five children were murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries at the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg.

Of course, it is also this that turns Rasputin's story from melodrama into tragedy for, although blame for the October Revolution can hardly be laid at his door, his perceived influence over the royal family and, in particular, the lurid rumours of a sexual relationship with the Tsarina (and even one particularly virulent story that he had raped the Tsarina's children in their beds) became a kind of avatar for the alleged rottenness at the heart of the monarchy and helped the likes of Lenin portray revolution as a cleansing act for Russia, clearing out the corrupt aristocracy to give birth to a new order and, ultimately, the mythical ascetic New Soviet Man.  The impact of Rasputin was seen as so great at the time that Kerensky, head of the provisional government formed after the Tsar's abdication, said:

"Without Rasputin, there could have been no Lenin."

Part of the mystique that surrounds Rasputin is that there are so many stories and rumours about his life that it is difficult to know what is truth and what is fiction.  This has allowed Frances Welch the freedom to take a judicious, and at times even humorous, view of his escapades whilst writing a vivid and highly readable biography.  She interweaves the narrative with the wider story of the political struggles faced by the Tsar during the First World War, which puts the story into perspective and allows the reader to understand the corrosive effect Rasputin had upon the monarchy and, by extension, Russia.

She finishes the book with a wonderful excursion through Rasputin's cultural afterlife and finishes with a lovely bit of trivia - far from being the massively-endowed sex machine of legend, a medical examination of Rasputin in 1914 after another failed assassination attempt revealed that his genitals were so small that his doctor believed that it was unlikely he could ever, to put it crudely, "get it up".

So, there you go.  To paraphrase the great Boney M, although he probably wasn't actually Russia's greatest love machine, he was indeed a cat that really was gone and it really was a shame how he carried on.  And I recommend you read France Welch's biography to find out exactly how he did carry on.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2,214: The Samurai Inheritance by James Douglas

I do have a bit of a penchant for thrillers that revolve around the hunting down of historical secrets or artefacts and so I was pre-disposed to enjoy The Samurai Inheritance.  It is, I believe, the fourth in a series of thrillers featuring art recovery expert, Jamie Saintclaire, although it is the first in the series that I have read.

In this instalment, Saintclaire is hired by an Australian mining magnate  to track down the preserved, shrunken head of a warrior from Bougainville, one of the Solomon Islands, which, somehow is alleged to have ended up in a German museum.  Despite the assignment being a world away from his usual diet of finding Old Masters and other artworks, Saintclaire accepts the assignment.  Being led to Tokyo in the company of an attractive museum curator, Saintclaire's quest gets entangled with a mystery surrounding the death in 1943 of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbour.  All roads lead to Bougainville and a hidden war in the jungle.

The Samurai Inheritance is a Ronseal book - it does exactly what it says on the tin.  Fast-paced with plenty of continent-spanning action, a plausible hero, some love interest, a World War II connection  and a devious villain, it's a page turner that won't disappoint a thriller reader who picks it up in a bookshop or the library.

Equally, it's unlikely to convert non-thriller fans and it's not one of those books that lasts long in the memory.  It was a fun read and, if I saw one of the other books in the series in a shop when I was looking for something to read, I'd probably buy it but I wouldn't go hunting one down.

Overall, it's a good, solid thriller for fans of the genre and none the worse for that.

Monday, August 10, 2015

2,215: The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

As I seem to recall having written before, albeit in different ways, literary resurrections can be something of the proverbial curate's egg.  Whilst some of the Bond revivals (which have been ongoing since the first John Gardner "continuation" novel) have been excellent, others have been limp and formulaic.  Sebastian Faulks made a valiant attempt at a Jeeves and Wooster novel but, at least to me, was always doomed to fall just short.  On the other hand, I am told that many of the continuation Mapp and Lucia novels are a joy.

Despite the recent rash of literary licences and continuation novels, Agatha Christie's literary executors had long held out against the phenomenon until, in 2013, it was announced that acclaimed crime writer Sophie Hannah had been commissioned to write a "new" Hercule Poirot novel.  Cue outrage from Christie fundamentalists, paroxyms of joy from other Poirot fanatics (what would the Poirotesque version of a "Cumberbitch" be called, I wonder?) and a predictable avalanche of hyperbole from the publishing and literary PR worlds.

Having previously been guilty of letting the hubbub surrounding a hyped new book affect my judgement of it (and here I cite Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles as exhibit one in the case against me), I decided to bide my time and display (as an unabashed Christie fan) Zen master-like patience, in waiting until recently to read The Monogram Murders.

And you know what?  It's really rather good.

Set in the winter of 1929, we find Poirot having taken up residence in a boarding house, seeking a period of respite from the gruelling business of detection.  Unluckily, maybe, for Hercule, Edward Catchpool, a young Scotland Yard detective, is also a resident.  Catchpool has been assigned a new and baffling case: three bodies found dead in separate rooms in the same West End hotel.  Each has been careful positioned after having been poisoned and a monogrammed cuff link has been placed in the month of each victim.  As one might guess, such a curious scene is irresistible to Belgium's finest, especially once he surmises that cuff links usually come in pairs and that the absence of the fourth cuff link may suggest that a fourth killing is in the offing.

It's a classic Christie set-up and Hannah uses a number of Christie's favourite motifs and tricks throughout the novel.  Poirot's investigation expands to include a reinvestigation of a separate death 15 years earlier (Five Little Pigs); Catchpool is a reasonable facsimile of the Hastings/Japp sidekick role; and Hannah, a psychological crime writer by trade, makes of Catchpool a far more rounded figure than either of Poirot's erstwhile sidekicks.  She gives real depth to his inner thoughts and insecurities, to the point where I sagely nodded my head, saying, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" to myself.  Was I right?  You'll have to read it and find out for yourself.

But, with a character as iconic and ask over as Poirot, the nub of the thing is always going to be: Does she get Poirot right?  And I think the answer is, pretty much, yes.  There is a school of thought that maintains that Poirot was never a fully realised character but merely a detailed assemblage of quirks and characteristics, really just an entertaining delivery vehicle for the solution of the mystery.  If this is your view, then Hannah ticks all the boxes.  From his OCD-like love of order, to the random use of French and his sentence structure, the surface Poirot is present and correct.

If, on the other hand, you agree with David Suchet and other lovers of Poirot that, despite the quirks and character tics, Poirot is a humane and developed character, concerned not just with the solution but with the concept of justice, then you should still be satisfied with Hannah's rendition of the character.  My only slight reservation (and, should you be interested, I come from the Suchet school  on Poirot), is that, at times, Poirot's dialogue seems not quite as alive as in Christie's originals.  I can't quite put my finger on it but I never felt that this could have been Poirot written by Christie.  It wasnt a big thing and it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book - it just wast quite as good as some of Christies's best Poirot's.

As Hannah also inserts a goodly quantity of Christie style clues and red herrings and has created a satisfyingly twisty plot, although her writing style is more complex than Christie's and, I would claim, better than Christie's, this is recognisably a Hercule Poirot novel and a satisfying new "fix" for fans of Christie.

It's not perfect, of course.  As I have mentioned, Hannah's style is more complex than Christie's and, although this could, under normal circumstances, be seen as a good thing (and Hannah is a highly talented writer), in The Monogram Murders, it, perversely, serves only to highlight Christie's real genius - her deceptive simplicity.  The best of Christie's crime novels manage to deceive the reader and to divert one's attention from her clues within a very clean structure, without sub-plots or unnecessary intricacy.  Everything is there on the surface and yet supremely hidden so that, when the denouement takes place, somehow it's all so blindingly obvious.  Hannah's plot, although enjoyable and satisfying, lacks this simple intricacy, which I think is much more a tribute to Christie than a criticism of Hannah.

Finally, and this is my biggest issue is that I just didn't quite believe in the premise of the solution.  One of Christie's qualities was that, despite the totally unrealistic circumstances of some of her novels  (Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express spring to mind), the solutions seem both logical and, at least once we know them, obvious.  Here, I felt as if i were being asked to stretch to accept the premise on which the solution was posited.

Still, I really did enjoy The Monogram Murders and think Sophie Hannah has done a wonderful job in producing a readable and satisfying Poirot novel.  I'd certainly read more Poirot by Hannah and the fact that The Monogram Murders doesn't quite have Christie's peculiar genius to it is no criticism at all.

Friday, August 7, 2015

2,216: Late Fragments by Kate Gross

"Kate died at home in the room she'd chosen and prepared on 25 December 2014 at 6.29 am.  Ten minutes before Oscar and Isaac asked 'Is it morning?' - so just long enough for Billy to hold her hand and say goodbye before stocking-opening, which, of course, cannot be delayed."

It seems strange to me, even a little perverse, that I have physically shed more tears for a woman I never met than for my own father.  I don't know whether it's because the death of a parent leaving behind young children is inherently heart-breaking or whether the courage, honesty and warmth of this short memoir affected me unexpectedly deeply but, reading the above passage, from the book's epilogue, during a long, sleepless night recently had me in tears, wracked with great heaving sobs.

Kate Gross died on Christmas Day 2014, leaving behind her husband, Billy, and her 5 year old twins, Oscar and Isaac.  Prior to her diagnosis two years earlier with cancer of the colon, she had been one of life's achievers - a First from Oxford, an adviser to two Prime Ministers in her 20s, the CEO of a charity supporting African democracies by 30 - whilst also marrying the man of her dreams and giving birth to two children.

But cancer is an equal opportunities disease.  I have seen it take my grandfather within weeks of him being told he was in remission; it killed the gorgeous daughter of friends of ours within 6 months of diagnosis, just two days after her second birthday, and it stole our wonderful 80-something next door neighbour from his wife of nearly 60 years.  It affects all ages, genders, races and income brackets and in December 2013, after operations and chemotherapy and a brief period of remission, Kate Gross was told that there was no hope after all, that the cancer was terminal.

Late Fragments is part memoir, part musing and part instruction book for her husband, sons, parents and friends.  Kate herself says that she was "wired for happiness" and, rather than focussing on the misery of failed treatments and the sheer, awful unfairness of the hand life has dealt with, the book is remarkably warm and positive shot through with her own joy in life and the need to embrace it now, and not to wish it were somehow different:

"What happens to you, uncontrollable or otherwise, isn’t the important thing.  What matters is simply how you are with it. And you can always, always, choose that."

She writes engagingly of her own self-confessed control freakery - of organising substitute mother figures for her boys from amongst her friends and of recording Roald Dahl stories for them to hear her voice, and not forget it (and, yes, I cried here too).  But noone, no matter how strong and optimistic, can stay upbeat all the time in the face of a terminal illness and Kate is unflinchingly honest about her sadness, periodic anger and even guilt:

"I can’t shake this feeling that I am letting them all down. Wiping my parents’ decrepit bottoms in 20 years’ time was supposed to be my job."

I found the most moving parts of the book to be the sections where Kate looks forward into the future she won't see and anticipates what may happen.  She muses on her children being brought up by a surrogate mother and her beloved Billy meeting someone else:

"I want Billy to be happy and loved. I want someone to get the washing done, without the darks bleeding into the lights. If the two could combine in one washerwoman-cum-wife, ideally without my sparkling eyes and wit, perhaps I could look down on that content. But then I think about someone else … with my Billy, seeing my friends. I imagine her in my kitchen telling the boys off for some teenage incursion. My job. I am haunted by this non-existent woman."

Late Fragments could easily have become either overly sentimental or grimly downbeat and bitter but is actually a warm and thoroughly inspiring read, eschewing both unrealistic optimism and easy tearjerking.  It's full title - Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) - sums Kate's character up well.  The book is engaging and, in the lightest possible way, a demand for us to grab every happiness we can from life

Yes, I cried, which may or may not be down to my own newly developed sensitivity (or mawkishness) about death but it also left me feeling a need to embrace my life, to recognise its joys and to search out my happiness.   I cannot recommend this highly enough - just don't read it in the lonely hours before dawn!

Monday, August 3, 2015

2,217: The Corners of the Globe by Robert Goddard

One of the oddities of having been AWOL from the blogosphere is that when, as now, I want to refer back to a book I've reviewed as being one of my favourites from last year, I have to check myself and remember that I actually read it in 2013 (which seems eons ago now).

So, anyway, one of my favourite reads of 2013 was The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard, the first novel in a trilogy that follows James "Max" Maxted, a First World War veteran hunting down the killers of his father, a senior member of the British negotiating team at the Paris peace conference of 1919.  If you haven't already read this excellent thriller, I hold warn you that the following may contain inadvertent spoilers.  You have been warned.

Max has concluded at the end of The Ways of the World that the secret of his father's death is held by the German spymaster, Fritz Lemmer, an elusive yet seemingly omniscient presence who, seemingly like Professor Moriarty, "sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised."

The Corners of the Globe opens with Max apparently working for Lemmer and being sent on a mission to Orkney to retrieve a top secret document from the interred German fleet.  Having managed to get hold of the document, Max becomes a hunted man, as he tries to deliver the document not to Lemmer but to Appleby, his contact in Special Branch.  Cue a 39 Steps style man hunt, full of narrow escapes, deaths and plenty of action, leading Max from the Highlands to Paris and beyond.  And while Max is headed towards Paris, his friend and former batman, Sam, is already there, working as a driver for the British Embassy and getting caught up in a deadly power struggle within the Japanese delegation to the peace conference, a struggle that is directly linked to the murder of Max's father.

As you can probably tell from the slightly convoluted synopsis (and from the fact I haven't really said too much about the plot for fear of spoilers), The Corners of the Globe is frenetically paced, chock a block with characters and multiple plot strands.  In truth, despite Goddard's undoubted talent, he doesn't quite bring it off.

Don't get me wrong.  I did enjoy it and Goddard definitely keeps the pages turning.  It just came across as very much the middle entry of a trilogy, a bit like The Two Towers (at least in my view and don't shout at me Tolkien obsessives - I love The Lord of the Rings as much as the next fantasy geek).    There's a sense that it's purpose is to physically move the protagonists and the plot to their correct starting blocks for the final volume, almost as if the central plot is too much for two books but hasn't quite got the legs for three.

Again, let me be clear.  It's a perfectly good book and there are some fantastic scenes in it.  It's just not as good as the previous book and I'm glad that I'd read that first - not only does it make this one much more comprehensible, the quality of the first kept my interest in this one going until the end.  I'm not sure that would have been the case if I'd come to this one first.

I have a couple of more specific gripes too - firstly, and I accept that this may be intentional (one of the characters is described as reading The 39 Steps and commenting that Max's adventures make it seem dull), the Buchanesque chase is just a tad too obvious and heavy-handed to avoid grating slightly.  And secondly, the ending is gratuitously cliff-hangerish, much more melodramatic than necessary.  But, and there's always a but, it worked, dammit.  I can't wait to read the final volume (it's only my promise to Mrs F not to buy any more books for a while and my burgeoning TBR pile that has stopped me so far).

On the other hand, Goddard's characterisations are great.  Max's character is developing real depth as his physical journey into the world of espionage is also taking him on a mental journey, forcing him to develop a harder, more cynical outlook on the world.  He kills an innocent person to protect his identity and feigns ignorance of a down on his luck former school friend - both things the Max of The Ways of the World would never have done.

Overall?  Well, I wanted to like it more than I did, whilst still liking the overall series well enough to really want to read the final volume.  If you like spy stories or adventure stories or are interested in the historical period, it's definitely worth a read but do read the series in order.

Finally, I'd like to thank Transworld publishers for allowing me access to The Corners of the Globe via NetGalley.