Sunday, September 30, 2007

bookmark of the week

This is the third and final bookmark picked up on my recent holiday to Switzerland. Although the flag was used on all manner of things ranging from pencils, ash trays, cuddly toys to bookmarks it rarely managed to look cheap. It looks good on this bookmark, which was purchased in Murren on a wet and dreary day that rather spoilt the feeling you had for the place. As a result ended up preferring Wengen.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

book of books - Roseanna

On the face of it this is a book that is going to get slotted into a bookshop in the crime section and as a result it gets a response that it is just simply a thriller. Add to that the combination of the names Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo and no doubt it closes off another potential slice of the readership fearful of a book heralding from Sweden. But both views would be narrow minded because crime fiction does not necessarily have to mean airport novel and foreign is not necessarily something to be fearful of.

But it was exactly because it was a book from foreign authors that was the attraction and for those that have never been in Sweden, a big hands up here, the locations are exotic in being completely unknown. But it is the way this is written, with the husband and wife team taking alternate chapters, that makes it unlike most other crime books you will have come across. The use of time is brave and crucial and the complex emotional side to the main character is painted lightly but expertly.

Plot summary
A woman’s body is pulled out of a canal and for three months no one has a clue who she is and although the services of Martin Beck and his two assistants are called in from the big city there is no breakthrough. Then they get a confirmation of an identity – an American tourist called Roseanna – but things then stall again. Beck becomes obsessed with cracking the case and the leg work that the police put in is incredible and they work out where she was killed and eventually after canvassing all of the passengers and getting photographs and film footage have an idea of the person who might have done it. But who was he? As they chase down the identity of the killer, and that involves weeks of watching and baiting with a female officer under cover, the tension rises. One of the witnesses that helps the police work out that a man in a removals company is the likely candidate runs for her life and in the end in a scene that pumps adrenaline the killer almost makes it a double as he gets close to killing to police woman set to trap him. Then beck has the task of getting him to crumble under questioning and manages to do it in a way that reminds you of Henry Fonda going for Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler. Exhausted but triumphant he wanders home to see his family for the first time in weeks.

Is it well written?
Time is a real device here with it taking months and then weeks for each stage of the case to be solved. The research working out what would happen in this sort of case is shown from the very start. In an interview at the end of the book Sjowall admits that the police as an institution is described in such detail because it is an extra character. Add to that the approach taken to the main character, martin beck, and it is again different. He is ill most of the time, in a relationship that is falling part and a bit of a loner. Those characteristics are not unusual in crime solvers but he is also seen as impotent as the weeks go by, isolated as some colleagues pour scorn on his theories and partly to blame for his marital mess. The fact you stick with him is because of the way he quietly but determinedly continues on the quest to get the truth and justice. This is not a case of a body falling out of a wardrobe every other chapter but the fact the tension is still there at the end shows that it has still succeeded in being gripping.

Should it be read?
By now it should be obvious that this book was very enjoyable and for that reason it deserves to be given a reading. It is also intelligent and written with a discipline that could have been dropped but would have undermined a structure that holds tight for 30 chapters. Although this is the first of a ten part series of books it doesn’t feel like that and so that should not be a stumbling block.

In the end, and it might take a long time, justice will catch up with the killer

Version read – Harper Perennial paperback

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Little Man from Archangel - post III

"Not only was he no longer at home in his own house, but he was no longer at home ion his own skin."
The book ends with a conclusion that would have been hard to predict at the start and it makes you fell very sad about the way that people can be bullied for no genuine reason. In the end Gina’s disappearance unravels Jonas Milk’s world and all of the insecurities emerge and he feels he has only one option, one act that can make it all better.

Bullet points between pages 120 – 140

* Jonas is escorted home by two detectives who ask him to take them through his home room by room and by the end of the search, which is witnessed by several neighbours, Jonas feels completely alienated from his world and home

* He goes into the backyard and plans to take his own life but then decides that he has no reason for that and wanders back through to make a cup of coffee before being disturbed by a knocking on the door

* A woman who works in a hotel tells him that his wife has been there with travelling salesmen for the past few days and it looks as if she has gone with him to Paris culminating an affair that has been going on for six months

* Armed with that information Jonas thinks about heading to the police station to clear his name and point them in the right direction and the reader assumes he has gone to do that but suddenly the focus shifts to the market gossips and they are all concerned they have not seen him

* Not concerned in a caring way but in the same intrusive inquisitive way that has led Jonas to the brink – with a wife that feared him, a community that has turned their back on him and a family that abandoned him – he takes his own life and is found hanging in the back yard

What a punch in the guts that ending is and it makes you question every time you have ever been tempted to get involved with office gossip

A review will follow soonish…

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

This blog is slowly turning into a confessional littered with excuses for why reading has not been done. The excuse today however is a genuine one with some weight. It was my son’s third birthday and when I would have normally have been sitting with a nose in a book I was lying prostrate with my nose stuck in the ridge between two panels of a bouncy castle. My son believing that he could bounce over me decided to make me try it and if a definition of a clear jump includes being hit in the stomach by a pair of flailing feet then he is of Olympic standard.

Anyway at this pace I’ll be reading Chekhov forever but here are some more highlights from The Steppe

Having waited for his Uncle and the priest to wake up Yegorushka and the travellers move on and the uncle is desperate to catch up with a rival businessman. They stop at a hotel but announce much to the owner’s displeasure that they are not staying. There then follows a description of the owners of the hotel, which borders on the anti-Semitic and is not pleasant to read. But the upshot of the exchanges are that the uncle has a great deal of money, the priest is selling wool on behalf of his son who is not much of a businessman and the focus of a lot of anger and jealously is a merchant named Varlamov.

More tomorrow…

The Little Man from Archangel - post II

I'm not feeling too well so although I have read some Chekhov this is all I can manage to punch into the keyboard tonight.

This book is brilliantly written charting the swift move from community regular to an outcast viewed by everyone with suspicion. Jonas is a catalogue of insecurities that all start to come out under the pressure of suspicion and Gina’s disappearance, which is probably innocently with another man, raises all of the problems that he had brushed under the carpet.

Bullet points between pages 56 – 120

* Jonas keeps the lies up telling everyone that his wife has gone to Bourges but it becomes increasingly difficult particularly after her brother almost accuses him of doing her harm and makes it clear he doesn’t believe him

* A wall of suspicion starts to build and although Jonas tries to remain the same the people in the market square he meets everyday start to treat him differently and make him feel even more uncomfortable

* It is an irony that the man from Archangel, a Russian Jew who chose to stay in the market after his parents went back to Russia to try and find his sisters, who he has not seen for years, should suddenly be made to feel so alien

* Things step up a gear with the police detective popping into the shop and asking him where Gina is and this time Jonas tells the truth but the policeman cannot seem to understand why he would not be jealous of an adulterous wife and you sense he is looking for a motive for murder

* The wall of silence continues until Jonas is invited into the police station to see the superintendent and there the extent of the malicious gossip about him becomes clear with a missing person’s report having been filed and suggestions Jonas decapitated his wife and then dumped her in the canal

* The worst disclosure during the interview, which involves Jonas revealing his wife has gone off with millions of francs worth of precious stamps, is when the superintendent informs him that Gina had said she was scared of him – something the mild mannered bookseller just cannot comprehend

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Little Man from Archangel - post I

With the memories of the enjoyable experience reading the thriller Roseanna it seemed like a good idea, in a real rush to get to work early for a meeting, to grab something also about the police and suspicion.

A while back one of the purchases made in the top of the Blackheath Oxfam branch was a Georges Simeon book. Bearing in mind he is famous for the Inspector Maigret series it seemed like a good choice to keep me occupied for the rest of this week.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 58

* The book starts with a second hand bookseller lying about the movements of his wife who has gone off and as it unravels seems to have left him to run off with another man – something she has done plenty of times in their brief marriage

* Jonas Milk lives a life of habit in the market square surrounded by other traders including the grocer and his wife and son, who are the family of Gina, his wife who seems to have been sleeping with men since she was 15

* Everywhere Jonas goes he is asked where Gina is and he continues to tell everyone that she has gone to Bourges but the lie starts to get him into trouble with her family and friends and when he discovers she has stolen his expensive stamp collection it looks like she is not coming back

* He realises that very soon his lies will come undone but even before that he is starting to be treated suspiciously by Gina’s family, not all of whom like the man who is 16 years older than the young woman

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

This final story, the title story The Steppe, which is as long as some short novels might take a bit of time but it starts in a way that does grab the attention.

Highlights from the first twenty pages

Yegorushka is being taken by his Uncle to school away from his mother because she wants him to do well in life. He is bitterly opposed to leaving home and does not really understand what is happening and the story starts with him crying sitting next to the coach driver while a priest and his uncle talk in the back. But after a while he starts to enjoy the moving landscape and looks out on a countryside that he has never seen before. The priest gives him some advice about the benefits of learning but his uncle is more reserved and promotes the benefits of being business minded. They stop for the horses to take a rest and everyone but Yegorushka sleeps but the young boy watches the horses and the bags and then is distracted by the sound of a song coming over the fields.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Three Men in a Boat - post III

The book comes to an end and while it has been enjoyable it has not aged that well. It is more Last of the Summer Wine than Saturday Night Live and although the humour is gentle it is perhaps too of its time. That is not to say it is a failing but it doesn't quite live up to the billing on the dust jacket.

Bullet points between pages 150 - 185

* Throughout there is a potted history being given of the places that Kings fought, were buried and had an influence but it is told in a 1066 and All That type way with the emphasis very much on the personal and quirky side of history

* Having moaned earlier about steam launches when they get offered a lift by one Jerome moans a great deal about the slowness of the rowers on the river and even comments that they have to shout and blow the whistle to get any movement

* No love is lost for Reading, which is described as a dirty town that fouls the water, and they seem relieved when they past it and near the end of the Thames journey getting ready to head home but as they turn around from Oxford the weather worsens

* After one night in the rain, with the food ruined and morale getting worse they head through the drizzle to Pangbourne and after a brief discussion abandon the boat and head to the station to get a train back to London

* Back in civilisation they eat to their hearts content and raise their glasses to 'Three men no longer in a boat' a toast that even the dog joins in with

A review will follow shortly...

book of books - Selected Tales

As part of the Penguin blog the classics challenge the book sent was Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe and the deadline to read it and review it was six weeks. This is a slightly longer version of the review I have now submitted, which will hopefully go live soon. It was an enyoable experience and hopefully Penguin will do something similar again the future.

When Edgar Allan Poe sat down to write he must have been an incredible feeling of adventure. He was writing stories that went into that area that straddles the lines between good and evil, life and death and the natural and supernatural. Each time he put pen to paper the journey into a mystical world would start.

In this series of Selected Tales there are stories that shock for their gruesome content, surprise for their innovation and others that create a genre for other authors to follow. Like a mountaineer being the first to climb Everest this is a writer breaking new ground on almost every page.

The reason why he gets away with what could have been difficult for some writers trying to see where their imagination will take them is because of the confidence in the writing. He is able to sketch out not just characters, and some of them are far from normal, but locations that require some detailed description in just a couple of pages. He uses literary devices, like quoting newspaper reports in Murder on the Rue Morgue, which are imaginative but more importantly work. On top of that he shows that it is possible to mix styles to create something that appears to be a traditional narrative but then packs a supernatural punch.

At the heart of a good Poe story is the pace. The reader feels the rising tension, fears the next move and shivers at the conclusion.

Some of the best stories to show that working are the Fall of the House of Usher where the climax is enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up as the house and the remaining Usher family both crumble into dust. Then there are a series of stories that start with a murderer lamenting over how he got caught - The Beating Heart and The Black Cat.

Then there are the detective stories with the enigmatic Dupin that remind you of Sherlock Holmes among others as the lonely odd individual uses deductive skills that solve crimes the police have not even got close to wrapping up. Murder in the Rue Morgue is the best of the three stories where Dupin appears because he visits the murder scene and solves the oddest of crimes, where the murderer was an Orangutan. All that is best about Poe is displayed in this single story with a mad ape yielding a cut throat razor turning an ordinary night time Paris into something much more disturbing. It also challenges the reader to push the boundaries of what they think might have happened and engage with a very active imagination.

Bearing in mind most writers are encouraged to write about what they know there is also a confidence here to tackle numerous locations ranging from Africa, Caribbean islands, Paris and America.

Most short story collections reinforce the impression that a writer is concerned with certain key themes, religion and love for example, but what this collection shows is just how wide Poe’s imagination stretched.

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

Most of the Chekhov so far has been thought provoking but not necessarily depressing but the stories from today are very much in the classic tragic Russian mould. Provoked one work colleague to make another request for me to read Jeffery Archer, “something not only light and enjoyable but also fantastically well written”. Enough in just bone sentence to fill up a million blogs in debate…

Highlights from Volodya
A young man who is staying with friends of the family because his mother is not doing so well financially following his father’s death falls in love with the woman of the house. He tells her that he loves her and then later that same night tries to get physically involved with her but both times is rebuffed with indifference and overhears the woman laughing about him to his mother. He goes home with his mother and abuses her verbally and then slinks off manages to get hold of a revolver and then still in a state of heart broken petulance puts the barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

Highlights from Sleepy
A woman who appears to have been sold into service is exhausted looking after her master and mistress’s baby. She dreams of sleep recalling the moment when her father and mother sold her on the highway and then she is sent scurrying here and there to do jobs and chores. By the end of the night she can barely stand and she realises that what is preventing her from sleeping is the child. So she strangles the infant and then lays down next to the cot and falls into a deep sleep.

The first part of The Steppe comes tomorrow…

Monday, September 24, 2007

Three Men in a Boat - post II

What can go wrong starts to go wrong but the emerging character here is Montmorency the dog who manages to have a run in with a cat as well as the kettle and come off worse in both cases.

Bullet points between pages 76 – 150

* The three boaters are travelling up the Thames recalling the various experiences they have had and they seem to range from having a bad experience learning to row as well as running into problems with steam boats

* As part of the revenge process they deliberately block the steamboats that have come up for an event in Henley and manage to infuriate most of the river traffic by pretending not to notice they are getting in the way

* There are some moments that get you chuckling as Jerome gets George into hysterics as he drops his shirt into the river only to then be incoherent with laughter himself after realising it’s George’s shirt

* Then they pop out leaving Harris in charge of the boat and when he crosses the river to pick them up he is clearly worse for wear and mumbling about fending off a flock of swans before slipping back into his stupor

* All the way up the Thames Jerome shares not only some of the history of the places on the way but his opinions on some of the places on the route describing Reading as ugly and Marlow as one of the better places to stop en route

The entire book has a feeling, humour aside, of describing a Britain that has largely disappeared. Messing about on the river in a very innocent way with hampers and boaters is the stuff of a more innocent age. The humour has lasted but sadly much of the world Jerome describes has gone and you are reminded of it very much when one villager on the Thames advises them to drink the river water, as he has done for 15 years. They are about to when a dead dog drifts by. Now of course you would be mad to even consider sipping the stuff unfiltered and treated.

More tomorrow…

book of books - Mr Pye

Adding this book to the Gormenghast trilogy the themes of good and evil and the battle within to choose which to be are echoed across Mervyn Peake’s work. Just as Titus Groan has to find his own way and discover freedom that ultimately means that he has to leave his family Mr Pye has to adapt his plans to remain free of the influence of evil or good.

Mr Pye is an odd central character because he is not difficult to feel close to and his behaviour and antics, mostly secretive, are always a bit strange. But the reader gets caught up in the question of what is the right equilibrium between good and evil. Does one good deed have to be cancelled out with a bad one?

Plot summary
An odd man arrives on the island of Sark and through his good will towards everyone and his determination to make the island a beacon of love for God he manages to shake up the islanders quite rapidly. None more so than the landlady of his guest house Miss Dredger who discovers that she is no longer mistress in her own house and this odd little man has taken over. She becomes his first and most loyal disciple and goes along with everything he asks including inviting her bitter enemy Miss George to stay in her house. Meanwhile Mr Pye is working his odd magic around the island building up for what he hopes will be a night of glorious conversion. But as he preaches to the population in a cove a rotting whale is washed up on the beach and the impact of his speech is lost. Shortly afterwards he complains of having been bitten on his back and starts to grow wings.

The doctors in Harley Street cannot help and by the time he returns to the island he has started on a course of action sinning at every opportunity to get rid of the wings. After a while it seems to have worked, no doubt helped by the nightly meetings with the goat of Mendes for a bout of Satan worshipping. Pye starts to grow horns and after a yo-yo between the two decides the only way to get rid of the horns is to endure some public humiliation. So he shows his horns to the islanders which causes the police to be called and for a chase to ensue which ends when Pye sails over a cliff, unfurls his wings and flies off into the night.

Is it well written?
The reader realises quicker than the narrative describes that the horns are coming and rather than repeat the emotions Pye felt when the wings were discovered the story quickly marches onto a conclusion. That is the sign of a good story teller because he knows that to leave it longer would cause impatience. The question of good and evil is dealt with in such a way that you are left asking some questions of yourself. Questions left going through your head include the most fundamental one (bearing in mind the transformation in the book of Miss Dredger): is life better if you are infused with love and prepared to share it?

Should it be read?
It shows a different side to Peake after Gormenghast but also just how able he is to develop characters that are unusual. Pye, Dredger, the painter and his girlfriend could all have existed in the Gormenghast world but are depicted living in this one. There are also sketches at the start of each chapter by the author that are also of interest showing how the vision of the artists mind works both graphically and in words. A final reason for picking it up (apart from the picture of Derek Jacobi with wings from the television version from a few years ago) is the humour of a story about a modern and quite unusual missionary.

Angle or devil? The choice is like walking as tightrope.

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

These short stories remind you of a concise crossword with the clues all being there but it not being so simple to crack the puzzle. To do that you have to read and engage with the characters that on the face of it seem to be sketched but in reality have quite a bit of depth.

Highlights from The Mire
A solider on leave looking to raise the 5,000 roubles needed to pay for his wife goes round collecting debts on behalf of his cousin. One of the debts is with a rich daughter of a vodka brewery and she acts in such an odd way that she bewitches the young solider. He returns home telling his cousin all about her and her refusal to pay the debt. The cousin storms off and comes back a day later equally bewitched but without the money. Both think about her but the solider has to go back and the cousin lends him the money and bids him farewell. He then thinks about paying the woman a visit a few days later and as he walks through her house, full of men, he discovers his cousin there who mumbles something about planning to leave the next day after having said goodbye.

Highlights from Verotchka
A youngish statistical who has been helping out a collective get their books in order comes to say his goodbyes. The daughter of the household of the head of the collective walks with him to the woods to be him farewell. She tells him that he loves him and takes him by surprise opening up her heart. He searches inside his own but finds no feelings for her and then refuses her. He then wanders around her home thinking about the love he is turning down but nevertheless heads back to his hotel and packs his bags.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The week ahead...

While the idea of best laid plans is still in the mind this is the rough menu for the early part of next week.
On the review front there is so catching up to do so there should be some things to be said about Mr Pye, Selected Tales by Allan Poe and Roseanna the great thriller that was last week's read.

Lunchtimes will be filled with some Chekhov with his The Steppe and Other Stories and the evenings will cover the antics of Three Men in a Boat.

Beyond that it's not so clear and depends on various things including the stock in at the local library, the speed of the eBay deliveries and whether ot not Amazon really is the only option for the second book in the Martin Beck detective series...

Bookmark of the week

The idea was to write some reviews today but you know what they say about best laid plans. The bookmark of the week is the second of the three I picked up in Switzerland on my holiday a few weeks ago. This one is special not only because it is a genuine Edelweiss but because that is the flower my wife had in her hair the day we were married. She secretly grew enough edelweiss to make into a garland - something she tells me was very difficult - and it was one of the touches to the day that I will never forget and for that reason edelweiss is a very special flower.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

book of books - Slaughterhouse 5

Whenever a famous author dies that you had never read one of the first impulses after reading and hearing the tributes is to go and discover what it was all about. That feeling swept over me when Kurt Vonnegut sadly died earlier this year and after failing to get Slaughterhouse 5 out of the library for reasons of popularity in the end I bought it and sat down to read arguably his most famous novel.

The blurb on the dust jacket actually gets in the way because comparing it to Catch 22 and talking about it almost being indefinable make it difficult to enjoy with an open mind. You really do need that open mind because this is a story that is all over the place as a result of the use of time and is also all over the place in its connection with reality.

You have to try to understand that the central character Billy Pilgrim - an odd man on an odd sort of Pilgrim's Progress through trial and tribulations until the bullet comes in 1974 - is as much a metaphor for the destruction of war as he is a literal character stuck in the middle of one.

Plot summary
The first couple of chapters are an introduction to the novel and Vonnegut's mission to write an epic using his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the time the allies turned it into a firestorm. He admits that not only has the idea been in his head for a long time but it is also one he has struggled to get going with because of his problems remembering the war. Then Billy Pilgrim is introduced. This time travelling optometrist is next to Vonnegut in the prison camp and in the aftermath of Dresden when the prisoners are made to work digging out the corpses. But Pilgrim believes in aliens and has been abducted and been put in a zoo on their planet and even had a second wife and child up in space and as a result is able to travel in time and so skips through his life going back and forth remembering things and people knowing what will happen next. His wife dies, his friends die and in the end he even knows when he himself will die. But he carries on with his life and time travelling and ends up remaining the figure of the clown that he had been given in the war. The name of the novel comes from the name of the place the prisoners are housed in Dresden and they are told that if they ever get lost they are to ask to be taken back to slaughterhouse 5, part of the city abattoir that lies dormant as the fresh meat never comes.

Is it well written?
It is an easy book to read in terms of style and length but it is a difficult novel to get to grips with. Is Billy Pilgrim mad about the time travel, which could result from the trauma of war? If he is right then is it trying to suggest we are a primitive world for doing acts like Dresden to each other? Or is it just a crazy mixed up way of using arresting characters to get you to think about the futility of war? I suspect it is a mixture of all three and probably some other things as well. The point that Vonnegut is trying to make is laid out in the introduction when he meets the wife of an old solider friend who accuses him of planning to write a book that will glorify war, He does the opposite and with his expression 'so it goes' after each death you start to get the impression that no one really cares about body counts and innocent victims in war. You also get the clear message that for those who end up fighting in them and surviving then it destroys them slowly. The madness of destruction on a scale that Bomber Harris and his friends visited on Dresden would alter your perception of reality. This book makes you wonder about war and its victims and you are left wondering just why anyone would want to fight people like Billy Pilgrim. As a call for peace it is subtle but powerful nonetheless.

Should it be read?
There are various reasons why this should be read including the style, which is confident and different from most traditional narratives. Also there is the subject, which is ultimately about a man trying to recover his memory about the past and piece together what happened and facing up to the horror. But it also deserves to be read because the person who wrote it was part of a generation that saw action, saw death on a scale we today cannot imagine and then tried to translate that into a novel that would not only be something generations that lived through peace could relate to but something that would plant a seed in the mind that when fully germinated - and it probably takes months if not years after reading this book - then you start to appreciate the disorientating and mind bending impact that war can have and why it is not something we should ever wish for.

Time travel, aliens and the horrors of war might all seem like illusions and madness but of all three the horrors of Dresden were only too real

Version read - Vintage paperback

Three Men in a Boat - post I

This should have been posted last night but apologies for that felt very tired after a hard week so left it just at the lunchtime read.

This is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it, which is mainly one of comedy, so you start reading it with an expectation of being entertained. You are not let down but the humour is very gentle and although this might have been the first place some of these jokes and observations were aired they are done so in such a harmless way you are reminded of just how much things have changed in the past hundred years.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 76

* Three friends who all complain of being both bored and ill - hypochondriacs rather than real symptoms - decide to go travelling to get some rest and some air and after debating the options including a cruise they opt for taking a boat up the Thames and camping and staying in hotels on the route

* The narrator brings along a rather independent minded dog that is clearly going to cause trouble, George is cast as a lazy over weight banker (it is both a sign of the times and a reason to be alarmed that 12 stone is described as large here some of us can only dream of that) and Harris appears to be a drinker

* They argue about the packing, the time of departure and almost everything in the run up to the trip leaving you wondering why they are agreeing to the plan and throughout the build up to the launch the narrator weaves in humorous anecdotes relaying other disasters involving boats, water, female passengers and the dog

* Finally the narrator, dog and Harris set off intending to meet George, who has had to work in the bank, further downstream and within a few turns of the oars the arguments starts, the packing comes undone and all the omens for a humorous but disastrous time are all there

More on Monday...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

In a rush leaving the house this morning it was hard to quickly make decisions about what to read today and for the next few days. The lunchtime read was dictated by what ever looked like a short story collection and the main read was ideally going to be developing on a Swedish nautical theme. All I could manage in a rush was a nautical theme but it is hardly in keeping with following Roseanna, which is about murder. Still bear with me while I get my bearings and work out what the next direction will be. Hopefully a trip to the library tomorrow will help.

In the meantime here is the choice for the lunchtime read some more Chekhov and tonight there is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. But for now on with the Chekhov:

Highlights from The Swedish Match
It appears as if a man has been murdered and a sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes mode decides he can solve the crime based on some of the same principles of observation. He manages to identify who he thinks is the murderer based on her use of Swedish matches, which are rarely used by the general population. But when he turns up, along with a reluctant magistrate to quiz the woman he has worked out is the killer it turns out she is hiding the man in her bathhouse and it is nothing more innocent than an affair leaving the sleuth with plenty of egg on his face.

Highlights from Easter Eve
A man visiting a monastery is taken over on a ferry by Jerome a layman who has just experienced the loss of his best friend who was one of the few monks who could read and write but he is kept away from the Easter celebrations because no one relives him on the boat and on the return journey he stares at a woman’s face reminding him of the friend he has lost

More to come soon…

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Roseanna - post III

The book sadly comes to an end and you end up reading the last sixty or so pages in a rush waiting and hoping it reaches the sort of climax that would be fitting for a book that is so tightly written. The fact it does is because the central character of Martin Beck, who is flanked by other police officers who start to become core to the story, is so well developed. He allows the case to dominate his every thought, to the extent he almost misses out on getting his Christmas presents. He drifts from his wife and family and becomes obsessed with catching the killer. At the end a brilliant description of his inability to write a simple note betrays the emotion that he bottles up inside.

Bullet points between pages 187 – 245

* To try and catch the man Folke Bengtsson they are convinced is the killer they search through the police offices to find a woman who resembles Roseanna who can act as a honey trap to entice the killer to try and strike again

* Beck has to wait weeks for the flirtation to work – under the ruse that she is using the transportation office where Bengtsson works to move furniture – but it takes weeks for her to get him to change his routine

* All of a sudden she phones Beck, who is waiting with colleagues for a nightly vigil hoping Bengtsson will call, and tells him that the suspect is watching her window from the street

* They tail him and for a few nights he walks around for hours and stares at her windows but never goes up and makes contact so Beck ups the stakes getting the police woman to pretend to bump into Bengtsson and suggest he calls her

* It seems to set the man off walking round the city for hours until he turns up looking up at the windows of the police woman causing her to phone Beck and ask for his officers to get into place to protect her and catch the man

* But the key being turned in the door is not one of the detectives but Bengtsson who takes her by surprise but meanwhile the detectives are stuck in traffic and desperate to get to the flat

* When they do Bengtsson is not far from killing the policewoman, who is naked and struggling for her life, and it takes Kollberg almost breaking his arm to subdue him and get him to the station

* There Beck interviews him and gets him in an angry state to admit that he killed Roseanna and tried to kill the police woman because they were dirty and disgusting and repulsed him

* Beck tries to write a telegram to inform the American detective who helped him with the case so much that they have got the man and he confessed but cannot spell immediately and finally walks through the snow and heads home

A review will follow in the next couple of days…

Roseanna - post II

“’Do you think he did it?’ asked Kollberg.
Martin Beck stood in the middle of the floor and looked at his right hand.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’m sure he did.’”
This book uses time in a way that few others would dare to because it is slow and awkward waiting with Martin beck for the breaks in the case. When they come it just means more work and more waiting. But as you read the tension is slowly building and it is one of those books that would be a great holiday read because it is almost unputdownable. The last few pages beckon tomorrow and it will be a real shame ending it if as I expect the ending is written as well as the rest of the book.

Bullet points between pages 74 – 186

* Having identified the name of the victim Beck now does all he can to try and find out as much as he can about her character and gets back from the US a picture of an independent woman who took the lead in sexual relationships

* Her former boyfriend reveals she had a hungry sexual appetite and was very much in charge of the relationship initiating the meetings and having sex just barely hours after the first date had started

* Meanwhile the detectives are getting all of the background on the passengers and start requesting photographs and a breakthrough seems to come from the US where along with some photos there is some video footage including Roseanna with a mystery man

* After lots of investigating the man turns out to be a passenger who boarded just for some of the journey and as a result was not included on any passenger list but the police spread around a still of the film image to all police stations

* Meanwhile Beck drifts through sleepless nights and ill feeling days smoking too much and avoiding almost any contact with his wife and children becoming physically linked to the progress of the investigation

* Beck tracks down two girls who worked as waitresses on the boat Roseanna was murdered on and one seems to have had a relationship with the prime suspect and no sooner had Beck interviewed her than she runs away – flees for her life

* Medical records show that she had been the victim of an attack with her fingers broken and then having something blunt shoved up inside her to the extent that the hospital thought she might have tried to perform a solo abortion

* A policeman on a delivery notices a man who he believes is from the film and he is tailed for a fortnight and Beck brings him in and questions him and then lets him go with no progress apparently made but Beck is now convinced he has just shaken hands goodbye with Roseanna’s killer

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mapping out from Edgar Allan Poe

Tapping in Edgar Allan Poe according to the literature map site the other authors that I might fancy reading include Karl Marx, Lewis Carroll and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. You can get a map of what else readers of Poe read and it is a possible prompter of other suggestions for authors. It's a bit of fun but once you start its hard to stop playing around with it tapping in other writers you can think of.

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Well the Poe finally comes to an end and despite the dark, supernatural and often gruesome content it has been an enjoyable ride.

What makes it something you stick with (apart from the commitment to read it and review it for the Penguin Classics blog) is that the writing is so good. You feel that this is a man on the cusp of something new almost every time he picks up his pen and along with helping develop certain genres he is also showing on every page an enquiring mind.

In the same way that ghost and horror stories grew out of crossing that line between the natural and supernatural there is a sense here that Poe is keen to investigate the thought process and the reaction to stories about murder, ghosts and spirits and near death experiences. What comes out of it is a sense sometimes of unease but equally unlike fiction based in bolted down reality there is an excitement because you never know quite what will happen next.

As a result it is quite easy to read stories that you suspect will have a nasty ending which in fact don’t and others that leave you wondering why Poe chose to focus on certain details when he appeared to have a narrative that could have gone in various different directions.

Highlights from The Domain of Arnheim
A man who comes into a very substantial fortune decides to spend all of his money on landscaping an area to master nature. He spends years trying to find the right spot and then Poe gives a description of the experience that the public would go through winding through streams and through different flora and fauna environments. The man dies but leaves a legacy of a transformed environment in the area of Arnheim, proving that he has been able to manipulate nature/

Highlights from Von Kempelen and His Discovery
An odd starting story that only really becomes clear at the very end with Von Kempelen being able to change lead into gold. As a result the suspicion is that the scientist will not be able to keep his secret for long so the price of lead shoots through the roof.

A review will follow by the end of the week…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nursing a grudge against Fitzgerald?

The Guardian has been running a series of booklets that come with the paper containing what it believes will comprise a set of the greatest interviews of the 20th century. The one in the paper today was an interview of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Michel Mok written in the New York Post in 1936.

In an introduction Jay McInerney refers to the fact this interview is famous for being a hatchet job that almost pushed Fitzgerald to the brink of suicide. Reading it you are struck by a man who is on the brink of self-destruction but he paints himself out to be a loser with very little prompting from the interviewer. The real betray of trust comes from the nurse who reveals when Fitzgerald leaves the room the true state of affairs, which Mok is only too happy to relay:

“’Despair, despair, despair,’ said the nurse. ‘Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little – maybe three, four hours a week.’”
What a great help that must have been to her employer. Mok took advantage no doubt of a man who should never have been encouraged to share his thoughts and his failings with a reporter. But the level of naivety is staggering from the nurse who manages to undermine any appearance of a successful return that Fitzgerald might have been trying to portray.

Roseanna - post I

Do you ever get one of those days when you pick up a book in a charity shop without much of a clue about its contents and then when you start to read it get a very pleasant surprise? Today has been one of those rare and precious moments.

What first attracted me to Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo was not only that it is written by Swedish authors, which is not something you come across everyday, but also that Edgar Allan Poe is mentioned in the introduction. Any detective story would naturally be referenced back to Poe but in his introduction Henning Mankell makes the point that this is not a book trying to ape someone else’s style.

You think that maybe those claims are one thing and reality will be another but things start and carry on in such a way that not only is this different but it is so well written that you start planning to purchase the other nine books in the series.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 73

* A body is found in a canal by a dredger, which pulls it out in its bucket and then dumps the female body on the side of the towpath starting off a police investigation that is handled by the small and local police force

* To help out with the local police Martin Beck and two colleagues are sent from Stockholm but they have no joy either even identifying the victim who seems to have no name even after numerous door-to-door enquiries

* Beck who is brilliantly described as being on the border of being ill most of the time in a marriage that seems to be pretty mundane and joyless becomes obsessed with solving the case along with one of the detectives from the local force he leaves behind

* Beck starts off looking for missing persons who are not from the area but visiting on vacation and eventually, after three months, he gets a breakthrough with an American police force recognising Roseanna a librarian who has gone missing

* Beck concentrates with his like minded local colleague Ahlberg on following their hunch that Roseanna was on board a boat and they track her down to being a passenger on a boat named Diana which throws up some blood samples from her cabin after forensics give it the once over

* The next task is to track down the other passengers and try to recreate what happened in the murder scene, a bleak small cabin on the Diana

Maybe I haven’t read enough crime fiction to know but I have never come across an example where for three months almost nothing happens and you get to share the tense desperation of the investigating officer. When the breakthrough comes a rush of excitement runs through you and far from being switched off it keeps you hanging on for more waiting to get back on the train to work to read the next instalment.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

The Poe is almost at an end an although it is dark stuff it is interesting because it is so clearly written by someone with an enquiring mind. Not prepared just to let the norm be the stuff of writing there is a supernaturalism here that adds to the story an added dimension that does work. On top of that there is clearly a fascination in the line between good and evil and what happens when you cross it and murder someone.

Highlights from The Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar
A man who is on his last legs agrees to be put into a mesmerist state and the narrator manages to put him under just before death intervenes. He remains in a state of half-death for months until finally it is agreed that they will let the patient wake. Asking him how he elicits the answer that is dead and demands to be let go. But no sooner out of the mesmerist state than the body crumbles and the bed is left full of a bitter smelling goo where the patient had been only moments before

Highlights from The Case of Amontillado
A man seeking revenge decides to get it on a festive day when the town will be focused on enjoying themselves. He beckons for his victim to accompany him into his dark and damp cellar to find some decent alcohol and when he reaches the farthest point chains the unsuspecting and drunk victim to the wall. He then bricks the man in and finds him changing from anger to hysteria to finally silence – a state that spooks the killer. But unlike other Poe tales he manages to get away with it and the story ends with the admission that no one has found the corpse.

Final couple of stories tomorrow…

Monday, September 17, 2007

Slaughterhouse 5 - post III

Because I was dropping a wardrobe off for a colleague at work I drove into today and that meant no reading. Add to that a business lunch and there was no chance to even pick up a bit of Poe. I’m almost running out of time with the Poe and am in my penultimate week to get the review over to the Penguin Classics site so will get stuck back into that tomorrow.

In the meantime there was a chance to get through the final pages on the Vonnegut. An odd book but very powerful in the end and one of those slow burners that twists and turns in your mind as it fuses all sorts of thoughts.

Bullet points between pages 124 – 157

* Billy Pilgrim time travels between the war, his wedding and his death meeting some interesting people on the way including the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout who has never met a fan before and lives in the same town as Billy

* Billy is reminded of his anniversary night when the optometrist barber shop quarter, who were to die in the plane crash, sang and the expressions on their faces reminded him of the horror of war

* Back on the planet run by the aliens he has fathered a child with ex porn star actress Wild Montana and the gossip papers speculate that she has been murdered to try and explain her long absence

* Billy’s wife Valencia dies trying to visit him in the hospital after getting carbon monoxide poisoning after losing her exhaust in a car crash and for days Billy appears to be a vegetable that can take nothing in

* But when he does talk he is happy to share his recollections about Dresden and the night it was bombed and the moon like appearance of the dead space that remained afterwards and although historians argue it was justified in war it killed tens of thousands of innocent people

* Billy along with Vonnegut were put to work to try and dig the corpses out of the rubble and the book ends with that image of the horror of death on a mass scale being enough to flip anyone’s mind looking for a way out of a planet that is full of people that can’t help killing themselves

A review will follow shortly…

Sunday, September 16, 2007

bookmark of the week

Whenever there is a big promotion on for a book there are alsways these sorts of bookmarks available on the bookshop till. Some are well done, and end up as minor collectables on eBay, but others are cheap and not worth keeping. Probably because of the book in question these will end up in the former category.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Slaughterhouse 5 - post II

There is a real method in the madness here with Billy Pilgrim going from an alien zoo to a prisoner of war camp in such a seamless manner that the whole idea of time travel back and forwards suddenly seems very familiar. It almost doesn’t matter if you don’t believe it because the point here is to investigate the impact war makes on individuals and Pilgrim’s problems are not designed to be an advert for war.

Bullet points between pages 86 – 124

* The prisoners are moved to Dresden to an old abattoir and are told that if they ever get lost and need to get back they should give their address, which is Slaughterhouse Five, and they will et sent back to the makeshift camp for 100 American soldiers

* In his time travelling Billy recalls more episodes in the alien zoo and the moment when they brought him a mate who was the opposite of his large and ugly wife who every time she appears in the narrative is chewing a different branded candy bar

* He also knows that when he boards the plane to an optometrists conference with his father-in-law that everyone except him and the co-pilot will die when the plane hits a mountain

* He also knows that he will be shot by a nutter he meets in the war who promises to avenge his friend Roland, who blames Billy for his death, and he finally gets Billy in 1976 as he comes off stage speaking at an alien abduction event

* Back in Dresden the Americans are trying to be convinced that they should sign up for a Nazi fighting corp on the Eastern front but no one is interested and as Billy alone knows the next night the bombers will come and will destroy most of the city

More maybe tomorrow…

Friday, September 14, 2007

book of books - Imposture

Most of the time the books I read have been written by people who have been six feet under for quite a while. Part of the reason is that there is some comfort knowing that a book has stood the test of time and been deemed a ‘classic’ by plenty of people. The other reason is that most of the modern stuff just doesn’t grab you in the same way. This book ironically is written as if it was something produced in the last century.

Benjamin Markovits starts using a literary device that sets it up and established the theme of imposture. There is nothing wrong with that but the problem throughout this book is that it is hard to ever really care about the main character. Not only is he pretending to be some one else but also he is pretending to be someone clearly more confident.

Plot summary
A young doctor who is drifting through life with no purpose is given the chance to become Lord Byron’s travel companion as the poet escapes his creditors and a divorced wife and heads to the continent. During the trip the famous incident with Mary and Percy Shelly, which gave birth to Frankenstein is covered but is the doctor John Polidori who writes The Vampyre. Things start with the book, which is mistaken for the work of Byron, and as he waits to complain to the publisher a young woman, who herself pretends to have met Byron before meets him and manages to get his address out of him. She then sets her sights on being seduced by him and in the end after Polidori reveals how he burnt his bridge with Byron, who made him feel inadequate and then seduced his sister. And runs up some debts the truth is finally revealed. Polidori takes his own life as things fall apart around him. He loved his sister, and not necessarily it is hinted in a purely platonic way, he dreamt of being a writer and he wanted to be loved. Byron did all of those things better than him and in the end he could not live in the shadow of the man he had pretended to be.

Is it well written?
It is a little bit like - male scene then female scene alternatively - until they intertwine and then it ends with the conclusion, which makes it a bit like reading a movie. The problem is that Polidori is a disturbed pathetic man struggling to get over his guilt of letting down his father, sister and Byron as well as finding out what his real purpose is in life. He fails at everything and seems to only succeed when he pretends to be Byron, which in the end makes him even more miserable. You get the point before the end and there are moments where you feel it is put on a bit thick. Plus having introduced a literary device where an old English teacher shares his writings there is not reference back. The style is almost nineteenth century but at the same time clearly written in much more modern times. The theme works but the only criticism would have been to maybe take the foot off the failure pedal at some points and make Polidori slightly more likeable and as a result the story would probably have been even more tragic.

Should it be read?
Hard one to answer that because there is no particularly compelling reason you should. But I suspect that is purely because of my prejudice against modern literature. What would I necessarily pick up anything – recommendation on another blog might help but it’s a minefield. In fairness if this is read then it is a well-written story and certainly a story that has been well researched and will not leave you with any unanswered questions. A quick check on Wikipedia indicates that most of the story was built around the true story of Polidori.

Pretending to be someone else might get you a bit of money and female attention but when the truth comes out sadly an overdose is the only ending possible

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

The reappearance of Dupin is welcome but lets face it after the Murder in the Rue Morgue the detective adventures are best left to Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Apart from that there is another reminder of how Poe can make you feel uncomfortable dwelling on one particular phobia.

Highlights from The Purloined Letter
A member of the royal household is discovered in possession of a compromising letter and a minister steals it knowing that no protest is possible. The woman turns to the police to get it back but they take the house apart and cannot find it. The reward for finding it is considerable but no one has any joy. Dupin asks for a large sum, of money to get it back and no sooner is the cheque written he hands over the letter. He realised that the best place to hide it is right under the noses and so he discovered it on a visit and then replaced it with a copy.

Te moral of the story is that if you wan to hide something them keeping it obvious often tricks the minds of those looking for some secret hiding place.

Highlights from The Imp of the Perverse
After a few pages suggesting that sometimes there is an overpowering desire to be perverse and go against the norm Poe introduces a man who has committed murder who is quite happy at having got away with his crime. But then he is infected by the desire to shout out his crime and starts to run through the crowd and when he is caught sure enough he blurts it out and for his honesty is rewarded with the hangman’s noose.

More tomorrow…

Slaughterhouse 5 - post I

Never having read any Vonnegut it takes a little bit of getting to grips with. It helps because you get a rambling opening chapter that acts as both as scene setter as well as an introduction to the style of writing that is to come.

In terms of style it is on first appearances quite disconnected anecdotes but you start to realise that things are linked and there are echoes that crop up and make you appreciate the skill. So it goes.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 86

* Vonnegut starts by revealing that he was a prisoner of war caught in the Dresden firestorm caused by the allied bombing and had always planned to do a book about it but couldn’t really remember much to do with those days

* He contacts an ex military buddy and starts to talk to him about the past and after convincing his wife it will not be a pro-war memoir he sets off to try and tell the story of the past

* Things really start in the third chapter with the arrival of the central character Billy Pilgrim who is introduced as an old optometrist who is a widower and happy writing to the local newspaper about the time he was abducted by aliens

* He is told to stop talking about his space adventures by his daughter but Billy is a time traveller and the story skips across his birth, marriage and his war years where he was captured behind enemy lines limping along in his assistant chaplains uniform

* Once captured he skips back and forth in time recalling the adventures in the space ship and the zoo he lived in on the alien world, his spell in a mental hospital after the war, his marriage to an ugly rich girl and his relatively stable but uninspiring family life

* The weaving in of the abduction and the capture make you feel as if one experience triggered the other and there is the suggestion of a fourth dimension but there is also the hint that just as time travel with aliens might seem intensely bizarre so does fighting against your fellow man

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Poe uses a device whereby the story is being told by someone who is confessing of a crime. It is used in the Tell-Tale Heart and again here with The Black Cat. The technique makes it darker because you know it ended in some grislly manner for the narrator to be telling the tale at all.

Highlights from The Gold Bug
A doctor on an island colony meets up with a friend who lives with a servant and occasionally meets up. He lets him self into his friends home and although the weather is usually hot it is such an unusually chilly day the fire is blazing and he sits down next to it and waits. His friend arrives and talks about finding a gold bug and draws it for him but when the doctor looks at the paper all he can see is a death’s head skull. The friend’s part on bad terms arguing about the image on the paper but an idea seems to have germinated in the mind of the gold bug owner.

Weeks pass and the doctor gets a visit from the servant who informs him that his master is going mad and has a letter calling on him to come. When they meet up the strange behaviour continues and the gold bug owner asks them to walk off into the forest and sends his servant up onto a tree. At the end of the seventh branch there is a skull and dropping the bug through the left eye it marks a spot from which the men can dig up Captain Kidd’s treasure. The gold bug is almost unconnected but had the owner not attempted to draw it he would never have found the map on the reverse that included the pirate sign of a death’s head that the doctor saw as he sat by the fire – which had heated the invisible ink.

Highlights from The Black Cat
An animal lover becomes an alcoholic and after one particularly bad bout he comes home and decides that his cat is looking at him strangely so cuts its eye out. He then tries to be remorseful but a few weeks later he hangs the cat. That night his house burns down all except for his bedroom wall that has the image of a cat being hanged burnt into the plaster. Again time passes and the animal lover comes across a cat almost identical to the one he killed and buys it. After a while he tires of the animal and moves to kill it with an axe but his wife stops him. For her trouble he puts the axe through her head. He thinks he has got away with bricking up her corpse but when the police come there is a screaming behind the wall that leads them to frantically pull the bricks away to reveal the corpse with the cat sitting on the head.

Highlights from The Premature Burial
A man, who is obsessed with being buried alive, partly because he suffers from a condition that means he slips into trance states that resemble death, discusses his phobia. First of all he reveals stories of others who have not been dead who wither died in a crypt or were lucky to be found before they died. Then he thinks the worst has happened and starts to scream out before remembering he is tightly squeezed on a ship and is waking the rest of the crew. The result of his moments when he really thought he had been buried alive is to relive him of the fear and hand him the chance to enjoy life.

More tomorrow…


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Back from Dublin and tired from a full day being talked to about Cisco’s plans for the future so although I started Slaughterhouse 5 on the plane will just stick to the lunchtime read. Although must make one moan. Having read most of James Joyce it seemed like a great idea to pop into the bookshop at the airport and pick up Finnegan’s Wake. But all they had was The Dubliners and not just one or two copies but about ten. It was a real shame that having been deprived of the chance to go to a bookshop the airport failed to deliver the goods.

Anyway back to Poe…

Highlights from The Pit and the Pendulum
A man sentenced to death by the inquisition is put through various tortures with the first being a room with a deep pit, which he only narrowly avoids in the dark. Then a pendulum swings down and only just misses him after he frees himself from its path. Final attempts to push him into the it by heating up the walls, which are pushed in towards him leave him about to faint into the abyss until a hand reaches out and pulls him back and it’s the French who have come and quashed the inquisition forces.

Highlights from The Tell-Tale Heart
A man decides to murder an old man because he has an evil eye that keeps staring at him so he waits and stalks him night after night until he manages to get into his room without waking him. But one night he disturbs the old man who is so terrified that his heart beats loudly and appears to be beating enough to raise the alarm but the murderer silences the heart by killing the old man. Then the police come after reports of a nigh time shriek and they are shown the old man’s room where the killer has cleverly dismembered the body and hidden it in the floorboards. He starts hearing the beating heart and finally is driven mad by the sound and confesses his crime to the police.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mr Pye - post IV

The book ends with Mr Pye finally finding out which side of good and evil he is on and leaving Sark the poorer for his departure. A bit like the Poe things end here with your imagination still going and plenty of follow-up thoughts about what happened next there to entertain you after the book has finished.

Highlights from pages 214 - 254

* Mr Pye alarms Miss Dredger and the painter and his girlfriend by showing them his horns and decides that the only way to get rid of them is to do something humiliating and identifies the cattle fair happening the next day is the place he will venture out with his horns

* He fully expects to be caught by the police and hopes that he can somehow make his escape before the police arrive from Guernsey, at least forty minutes away, but the alarm is raised quickly and the islanders turn on him and it is only because of the painters girlfriend Tanty who suggests hide and seek and gives Mr Pye the key to the prison that he escapes

* When she catches up with him his horns are almost gone and he has grown wings and then with her help he jumps on a horse and carriage and heads off into the night chased by islanders who are witnesses as he rides to the edge of the cliff and hurtles over

* Unfurling his wings Pye flies off into the sky and leaves the island which returns to an insignificant rock with a small population

Review will follow later...

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

I am in Dublin right now with work so everything is going to be slightly delayed. Sadly work is intense so there won;t be a chance to see anything other than the conference facilities at the Guinness storehouse. Anyway back to Poe...

There is something about a book that makes you really think that is very attractive. There is something happening here beyond the simple trying to guess which way the plot will turn and with the sequel to Murder in the Rue Morgue you are left without a resolution but thinking about the value in thinking differently about events and understanding what makes it as a clue.

Highlights from The Masque of the Red Death
A territory run by a duke is plagued by the red death, so called because of the bloody appearance of its victims. The Duke turns his back on his people and takes 1,000 courtiers and takes to a walled citadel to protect themselves against the plague. But at a masqued ball suddenly a stranger appears in a cloak with the marks of the red death on his face. he Duke demands his removal and when no one manages to do anything about it he runs at the stranger and then falls down dead, swiftly followed by the rest of his guests who tried to avoid death but managed to get caught after all.

Highlights from The Mystery of Marie Roget
This is a sequel to Murder in the Rue Morgue so Dupin reappears but he doesn't do so for quite a while. Mirroring the true events of a murder of a girl in New York the case centres on a girl found dead in a river.Theories abound through the press but Dupin shows by reading all the press cuttings, which are printed here in full, it is possible without even visiting the murder site to show that not only have the police missed most clues but also made completely the wrong assumptions about the killers - which is not a gang but an individual.

You are left wondering if the killer was a mystery naval officer or wether or not the finance had somehow managed to find out about a possible elopement and stopped it. The reality is that no one tells you because you are left wondering without an answer.

More tomorrow...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Mr Pye - post III

Poor old Mr Pye struggles to work out the impact on his person of good and evil hoping that by swinging the balance in the negative direction he will force his wings to disappear. Unlike the battle between Titus Groan and Steerpike this contest to stick to the right path is fought in the single man with the result of him appearing to frighten those who know him by his wild character changes.

Bullet points between pages 140 – 214

* Mr Pye consults a series of doctors on Harley Street but none of them know how to react to his wings, which continue to grow, so Pye tries to come up with the answer to the problem himself

* He decides that he has been given the wings because he was being so Godly so the way to get rid of them is to go to the other extreme and start being evil so he walks out of his hotel without paying the bill and do some minor vandalism

* Heading back to Sark his evil attempts continue and he turns up and disturbs Miss Dredger with his rudeness and then a series of events happen as a result of people witnessing his wings with Miss George having a heart attack and falling down the stairs winding up at the bottom dead and a local witnessing Pye’s shadow and getting carted off to the local asylum

* To get rid of the wings Mr Pye starts nightly sessions with the devil and soon enough it starts to work but as he walks along with Miss Dredger he complains of having been bitten again twice but this time on the forehead

* Peake doesn't take as long to describe the growing of the horns and all of a sudden Pye is faced with this difficulty balancing good and evil and realises that he never understoof his relationship with God at all properly

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

By now with not quite 200 pages of the book got through you get the feel of Poe, an inventive and dark writer, really must have had fun pushing the boundaries. He is able to come up with different styles and make up the rulebook as he goes along.

Highlights from The Colloquy of Monos and Una
This one is a bit of a struggle until near the end when it becomes clear that this is a conversation between two dead lovers that have been reunited in the spirit world. They say that the sign of a good writer is someone who can get into the head of a different character. Poe shows here with the description of the thoughts of a dying man and then a corpse that he is quite capable of going into any sort of territory.

Highlights from The Oval Portrait
A very short story but by now you recognise all the hallmarks of Poe – darkness, horror both against a sense of faded grandeur. A traveller pitches up at a chateaux for the night and a book on his pillow explains the history of the numerous pictures in the room. As the hours tick by he is struck by a small oval portrait of a woman. Picking up the guide book he reads that she married the painter of the picture and he agonised about her portrait for a long time and when it was finally finished the sitter had died.

More tomorrow…

book of books- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is one of the biggest characters around and when you pick up a collection of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle about the great detective you know that you are in for an enjoyable ride, which is why it is such a good choice for holiday reading. But there is also a connection that is still very much kept alive in Switzerland to commemorate the place where the fictional hero met his demise wrestling on a precipice with arch enemy Moriarty. Being able to go and visit the place where Holmes fell on holiday was special and certainly anyone who falls down the Reichenbach falls is not going to be getting back up.

Plot summary
This is a collection of tales told by Watson in the form of a memoir that is filling in the blanks trawling through the earliest cases of Holmes’s career introducing his brother Mycroft and some of his University background before moving to the finale. The Final Problem, where Holmes fights with Professor Moriarty, is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is surprisingly short for such an emotional and critical tale in the Holmes history; and secondly it seems to come out of nowhere without any of the preceding stories acting as a springboard into the Moriarty storyline.

Up to that point the collection looks back over Holmes’s career revealing the way certain mysteries including the death of a man in a locked room, the twin brothers conning a bank clerk and the torture of a Greek translator are all solved. Without going into any great detail of the individual stories (previous posts will do that) it is safe to generalise that all of them are a mixture of suspense, darkness and Holmes amazing ability to solve the crime. The end comes with Holmes going out on a high ending the career of his opposite the criminal mastermind Moriarty. It is worth waiting for and delivered through the friendly pen of Watson who is the loyal narrator until the bitter end.

Is it well written?
Some stories work better than others with some lacking a great deal of depth – a one-dimensional problem that is impressive until Holmes has shown how it was solved. But in terms of mood this is a great collection of stories that would have kept readers gripped when they first appeared and still have the ability to keep you wanting to read more. The combination of maverick detective, dark crimes that appear to be unsolvable by the police and some seedy characters might be lifted from Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue but to be able to deliver again and again at this level is an achievement that is Conan Doyle’s own.

Should it be read?
You have to read the Final problem at some point because it is one of the most famous Holmes stories after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Even people relatively unfamiliar with the actual contents of Sherlock Holmes books know about the fight with Moriarty. But there is another reason to pick this collection of stories up, the simple benefit of pure enjoyment. These are puzzles delivered by an expert storyteller who knows that he has you as a reader in the palm of his hand waiting for the moment when Holmes finally shares all of the secrets with Watson.

A collection of victories over crime that ends with the greatest of them all requiring the greatest sacrifice

Version read – Penguin paperback

Sunday, September 09, 2007

bookmark of the week

Mislaid the Swiss holiday purchases so for the moment this one is courtesy of my mother who sent me this after visiting the Art Institute in Chicago. This is a bookmark showing the Boy in Red by Paul Cezanne and comes in one of those plastic protective slips that bookmarks always seem to come in when you get them in the US. Looks like the Boy in Red is dressed up but judging from the expression not that pleased about where he is about to go...

Who really has the time?

No time for reading today because it was a big family get together for my mother-in-law's birthday. But the subject of holiday reading came up and it gave me a chance to share my observations.

Those national newspaper supplements that interview the literati who all announce plans t head off for the sun with armfuls of books both fiction and non-fiction paint an aspirational but exaggerated picture of what is possible. Those people who read more than a couple of books must either not have children or have chosen to visit somewhere that requires very little movement off a sun lounger.

For most people - even those of us who pride themselves on reading for pleasure - it is just not possible to read great amounts and I suspect given my wife's amazing ability to find things for me to do even on holiday things won't change even when retirement comes in many years time...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Well these things happen but I headed off for work leaving Mr Pye on the dining table so all there is to blog about today is the Poe which following the brilliant Murder in the Rue Morgue was always going to be a bit of let down. One passing thought reading the first story is that of course in pre aeroplane travelling times the sea was unavoidable and no doubt seen as dark and mysterious with only a few people being able to master it. Not quite sure if the storyteller in this tale has been totally mastered by the swirling whirlpool.

Highlights from A Descent into the Maelstrom
A sailor taking a tourist up the cliffs points out to him the raging sea below and the whirlpools that form then suddenly disappear and then tells him a tale about how he was sucked into one on his boat with his brother. They were caught in a great storm and dragged towards the whirlpool and went into it and were slowly sucked down. The surviving narrator threw himself off the boat onto a barrel and was eventually spat out but his brother was smashed with the boat at the bottom of the whirling sea. After he was rescued the man’s hair had turned from “raven black” to white and despite his graphic detail none of the fishermen who had saved him believed his tale.

Highlights from The Island of the Fay
A short and whimsical tale about fairies – Fay’s - that streak like shadows across the woods until their shadow is no more. Compared to what has gone before there is not much in common here in terms of mood with it being more melancholic and reflective than inspiring horror but of course there is the supernatural element to unsettle.

More hopefully over the weekend…

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mr Pye - post II

It is quite hard to describe but what you start to appreciate about Peake’s writing is his ability to build up an imaginary world that is then possessed by a central character that cranks up the tension in an already weird universe. Pye reminds you of Steerpike with his planning and scheming around the midnight feast, although unlike his other literary cousin his intentions are good.

Although this is set on Sark it could as easily be set on the moon because the plain that Peake is working on is not hindered by reality, and as a result is all the better for it.

Bullet points between pages 82 – 140

* Mr Pye draws everyone together at the chosen site of Drebble beach and starts to spread his love around those invited guests but all around the top of the bay are the rest of the inhabitants of the island watching

* Before getting Miss George to descend through The Chimney, a hollow rock that goes down from the cliff to the beach, he calls everyone together and starts to preach about the power of his Pal

* But then as he reaching a crescendo and blows the whistle for Miss George to be lowered a dead whale washes up on the beach and the stink forces retching people to head for the hills and a catatonic Miss George is dragged back to her room

* She remains in bed cursing the whole enterprise and Miss Dredger has to try to cheer up her friend Mr Pye who has two bites on his back on his shoulder blades and is worried about the symmetry of the bites

* After a few days he wakes without feeling pain and as he checks his back discovers tiny white wings have broken through the skin and he is completely thrown by it and the narrative skips quickly on to find him back in London seeking help from specialists to help deal with his full size wings

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Sorry for the lateness with this post but on the magazine Thursday is press day so it is all hands on deck and I ended up writing a couple of stories so had to work through lunch break.

Mind you this is worth the wait because the couple of stories today included the Murder on the Rue Morgue. The echoes in the world of Sherlock Holmes are obvious but the difference here is that you like Holmes more than the reclusive Frenchman who cracks this crime. Still for atmosphere and style its Conan Doyle in so many ways.

Highlights from William Wilson
This might sound like an odd thing but I was left thinking of the film Fight Club after reading this. William Wilson has what he thinks is a shadow a doppelganger who follows him round and destroys his life but when he finally faces him and drives the knife home several times he looks in the mirror and it is himself he has killed.

Highlights from Murder in the Rue Morgue
A woman and her daughter are found brutally murdered and the police have no idea about how the crime was perpetuated. Two solitary friends live together and one of them Dupin decides to help solve the crime once a friend has been arrested without evidence. He visits the scene and minutely examines everything and then works put that the crime was perpetuated by an orang-utan and manages to entice the owner to his house to look for the missing beast and confess what happened.

There is a darkness that comes from the descriptions of the murders and the bodies but so many things that happen here are repeated in Conan Doyle. There is one scene where Dupin manages to voice his friend’s thoughts and then explains how through a combination of reading his expression and reaction to events he managed to read his mind. Something exactly the same happens in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes where Holmes interrupts the thoughts of Dr Watson.

Mind you with writing of the standard of both Poe and Conan Doyle questions of originality are not to be too much worried about. Just enjoy the results of their creativity.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Mr Pye - post I

It must have been something about reading Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher that made me reach this morning as I left for work for a Mervyn Peake - thinking of the gloomy spires of Gormenghast.

but this is a different book in feel from the Gormenghast trilogy and although you sense some dark twist is looming it is so far enjoyable and pacey as Mr Pye weaves his magic on the island community of Sark.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 81

* Mr Pye gets a single ticket, which raises an eyebrow, for the boat to Sark and from the very start arouses curiosity from everyone who sees the rather portly smiling traveller who keeps himself strictly to himself

* On the island Mrs Dredger is waiting to put him up in her guesthouse and she is portrayed as a woman of strong reserve who doesn’t suffer fools at all and is known on the island as a formidable character

* Mr Pye starts changing the status quo almost from the off by offering the carriage he is meant to be picked up in by Mrs Dredger to Miss George her sworn enemy leaving the boarding house owner stomping up the hill

* At the crest of the hill Mr Pye orders Miss George out and heads off to calm down and take over the Dredger house swallowing on fruit drops all the time – which becomes his nickname on the island – and becalms the woman

* He explores the island from top to bottom in six weeks and then starts to unveil his master plan to infuse the entire population with love aided by his great pal God who he talks to about his plans all the time

* Having turned the world of Mrs Dredger upside down he turns his attention to the rest of the population and particularly Miss George who he invites to live with Mrs Dredger promising to change her life for the better

More merriment and mystery tomorrow…

Truth is the stuff of ficton

Talk about life mirroring fiction. The story on the BBC web site today about a man who was found guilty after a policeman realised that the murder he had described in his book had actually been carried out seven years earlier is ripe for a film script. Krystian Bala planned and carried out the murder of Dariusz Janiszewski in Poland because he thought the man was having an affair with his wife.

The details of the story are set out by Adam Easton on the BBC web site:

"The body of Dariusz Janiszewski, the young, well-liked owner of a small
advertising agency, was spotted by fishermen seven years ago on the banks of the
River Oder, near the Polish city of Wroclaw.

He had been tortured, starved and tied up in a way that made it
impossible to swim.
For years the police in Wroclaw had no motive and no
suspect for the murder.
Then an officer came across an internet discussion
about a murder in a recently published novel, entitled Amok.

The book was the first novel by philosophy graduate Krystian Bala, and
it contained a description of a murder with similarities to that of Mr

The morale of the story is probably that one shalt not murder but if you do then it’s best not to write it down in detail in a thriller.

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

Reading a bunch of stories from someone as well known as Poe is a bit like putting a Greatest Hits collection on your iPod. The temptation is to just head for the tracks that were big hits and then gradually expose yourself to the others. That temptation is the same here with some of the less known stories sometimes being seen as obstacles to some of the ‘hits’.

Managed to get to one this lunch break and it is dark and not quite the best thing to keep you in a positive frame of mind at work.

Highlights from How to Write a Blackwood Article
A woman approaches Mr Blackwood and asks how you go about getting an article into his magazine. He advises her to write with a blunt pen and along with other odd recommendations insists that her subject matter should be some sort of personal disaster. Using a story about her choking on a chicken bone as an example he tells her to throw in some French, Italian, Greek and German to spice it up. Fired up she leaves his company and tries to run into some sort of trouble as soon as possible until she finally manages to find something and starts her story, which ends mid sentence…

Highlights from The Fall of the House of Usher
A school friend of the last remaining Usher male is called to visit his friend and finds him and his twin sister in a terrible state. She seems to be dying of some disease and he is mentally falling apart. As the last of their line there is a feeling that with them will go the physical building also referred to as the House of Usher. The brother tells his friend that his sister has died but is contagious so they take her into the bowls of the old house. But he remains in an odd state and as his friend reads an old story about a knight fighting a dragon the sounds of the tale resound around the house.

The brother tells his friend that he has buried his sister alive and the sounds are those of her smashing her tomb and wrenching the gates off the cellar door. Sure enough she bursts into the room and falls on her brother killing him. The friend flees in a state of horror and as he rides off the House of Usher crumbles into dust.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Holiday read: Imposture - post VI

Well the holiday finished a few days ago and now so does this book. There are some things that I want to say about it which will be kept for the review that will come in a couple of days. But things end with Polidori becoming the metaphorical vampire feeding off misery, failure and death. Victims he has known include primarily himself, his sister, Eliza and Byron.

Highlights from chapters sixteen to eighteen

* Polidori is now becoming reckless and more details of the past are filled in and he receives a message from Eliza suggesting they spend a night together and he goes to a money lender to get the funds to then take up her offer

* Dressed as a page boy she arrives and they head down in the coach to Brighton and most of the way there Polidori contemplates telling her who he is but decides to tell the story of Polidori from Byron’s point of view

* Having filled Eliza in on his behaviour, which included seducing Polidori’s sister, the young girl is distraught but having gone so far decides to forgive the Lord and go the final step which is soon on them in the hotel room

* After the act is completed he reveals who he really is and Eliza is distraught that her dream world has crumbled around her and he leaves her surrounded by some of the money he has left and heads home

* Once back at his father’s house he retires to bed and refuses to come out even when his sister and father ask him to come down to dinner and give up his bed for his nephew to have a sleep in the room

* At that point Polidori is sipping some poison and taking a step that Byron might have contemplated but never had the guts to make  - suicide - and he muses on the regrets he has had and the misery he leaves behind

A full review will come in a couple of days...

Lunchtime read: Selected Tales

There is a writing style that makes it sometimes difficult to follow the stories but now and again there are a few pages of clarity that give a clear indication of the power of Poe’s gothic imagination. One of the stories read today is particularly dark and back in the days when I walked around in a pair of winkle pickers dressed all in black it would have appealed in a quite different way.

Highlights from The Assignation
An observer is drifting along in a gondola in Venice when he hears a scream and understands that a beautiful woman has dropped her baby out of the window into the water. People are diving in trying to help her but she is fixed on staring at the other side of the lake and a stranger dressed in black and retrieves her daughter from the depths and then makes as assignation with her. He also asks to meet the stranger who visits him in a luxurious house that is topped off with a full length portrait of the woman that was seen the night before. The stranger clearly loves the woman and then drinks deeply on a goblet and throws himself down on an ottoman. At that moment the door bursts open and a messenger shouts out that the beautiful woman is poisoned and checking on the stranger he turns out to have taken his own life as well.

A lovers pact to meet and be together in the hereafter?

Highlights from Ligeia
Talking of a pact to be together a man who has to watch as his wife Ligeia dies is heartbroken but carries on his life and marries again. His second wife starts to become ill and is convinced in the later stages of her illness that someone else is in the room and even her husband notices it. When she finally dies the corpse keeps returning to life every hour or so each time trying to get off the bed and finally it does and as the man looks for signs of recovery he sees that his first wife has returned.

A dark gothic tale of a spirit returning to take possession of the body of the woman who is married to her husband. You sense that the husband knows what is happening all along and welcomes the return of Ligeia.

More tomorrow…