Thursday, October 19, 2017
Crab Key island is desolate and remote. So why is Dr No defending it so ruthlessly? Only Bond can uncover the truth.
Its been many moons since I read this and it has not aged well, certainly not like From Russia With Love or Goldfinger , still a fun afternoons read but not in the top echelon and I love Bond books.
The best part of re-reading this was the Introduction by Jonathan Freedland who explains the Bond phenomenon better than most, especially their initial popularity.
For Fleming never forgets that a thriller has to thrill; that, what ever else it does, it must entertain. Central to such fiction's magic is the promise of escape. When Casino Royale the first Bond novel, appeared, rationing still had a year to run in Britain. To a readership still trudging through a drab, grey country exhausted by war and austerity, Dr No offered the prospect of azure skies, powder-white beaches, gorgous women and handsome men. When jet travel was still a novelty, when foreign tourism was still off limits to all but the wealthiest, how exotically enticing must have sounded Jamaica's North Coast, Blue Mountain and even Crab Key.
To the Brits back home , heads down against the rain, their legs whipped by the wet hems of their macintoshes', a Bond novel was a ticket to distant joys.
If you've never read these books, invest a few weekends, the trick is they were written contemporarily, views, expressions and attitudes were not as they are today.
I say to anyone who wants to alter older books to censor or change, sell a few million of your own before you start touching up those that have gone before you.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Albert Campion is home on his first leave from the war for three years. He is in his bath when he hears a ruckus in his lounge. He goes out to find his man Lugg and a lady "of unmistakable aristocratic bearing" carrying a corpse.
So begins this very dark mystery first published in 1945. This is much darker without any of the flippancy that were a feature of Allingham's pre-WWII Campion novels.
This story is set over a week and involves some very nasty people dealing in stolen property that the war has enabled them to profit from.
Very dark, very entertaining, very recommended.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
A young war widow begins receiving photographs of her presumed dead husband. The husband was supposedly killed during the D Day landings but these photographs have him walking around London within the last week.
She goes to Albert Campion to have him attempt to locate what is almost certainly her husband.
From this the story explodes into dealing with a stone cold killer, professional burglars and a decent mystery.
This is great fun, an adventure with the usual witty dialogue from Allinghams wonderful characters. She has the City of London as one of the main characters in this book with the heavy fogs adding atmosphere throughout the story.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Lord Peter Wimsey could imagine the artist stepping back, the stagger, the fall, down to where the pointed rocks grinned like teeth.
But was it an accident- or murder? Six member of the close knit Galloway artists' colony do not regret Campbell's death.
Five of them are red herrings.
This is a proper mystery story, all the information is laid out for the reader to follow the logic in solving the crime (to a pedantic extent sometimes) , you will need to take notes but if you do you should arrive at the correct conclusion the same time as the books characters.
The book has been deliberately written in this fashion and as such can be repetitive and lags. There is also this supremely annoying inclusion on page 21.
(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details himself, they are omitted from this page).
The direct appeal to the vanity of the reader is , I think ,a bit unnecessary.
So this is a bit slow with Wimsey is a lot more serious in this book than others in the series but if you like jigsaw puzzles it will have an appeal.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
Alan Grant, Scotland Yard Inspector is feeling bored while confined in hospital with a broken leg. Marta Halland, an actress friend of his, suggests he should amuse himself by researching a historical mystery. She brings him some pictures of historical characters, aware of Grants interest in human faces. he becomes intrigued by a portrait of King Richard III. He prides himself on being able to read a persons character from his appearance, and King Richard seems to him a gentle and kind and wise man. Why is everyone so sure that he was a cruel murderer?
With the help of other friends and acquaintances, Grant investigates Richard's life and the case of the Princes in the Tower, testing out his theories on the doctor and nurses who attend to him. Grant spends the weeks pondering historical information and documents with the help of Brent Carradine, a likable young American researcher working at the British Museum. Using his detectives logic, he comes to the conclusion that the claim of Richard being a murderer is a fabrication of Tudor propaganda, as is the popular image of the King as a monstrous hunchback.
This is very clever, the mystery is solved by research using contemporary documents available to Grant working on the case 400 years after the event.
It never falters , potentially it could with the entire novel being set in one room in a hospital, but the flow of information is so constant and interesting you get to the end of the book without realizing. It is very easy to understand that this is rated one of the best mystery stories.
The bad news is Tey only wrote seven novels before her premature death and there is only one remaining for me to read.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Judge Crowdy Lobbett is a man of justice, an upstanding pillar of American society. And now he is in deadly peril, tailed across the Atlantic by the ruthless Simister gang.
Luckily for Judge Lobbett, however, he makes the acquaintance of one Albert Campion during his voyage to England. The enigmatic amateur sleuth bundles the Judge off to the country house of Mystery Mile, where its a race against time...
This is more of a caper than a mystery, which was originally published in 1929. It has lots of action and humour, a light John Buchan or very similar to a 'Bulldog Drummond'. Either way its great entertainment.
Allingham manages to write different books in different styles while keeping her same core characters. This is a light adventure but others in the her Campion series are very dark mysteries. Again, either way she is in my top three or four mystery writers. Never disappointing and comes highly recommended.
These English country houses are just dangerous places, never a quiet moment.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
First published in 1960, No Cloak, No Dagger tells the story of four missions undertaken by Cowburn in France between September 1941 and July 1944 for the Special Operations Executive. The purpose of that organization was to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines, to ' set Europe ablaze' as Churchill ordered on its formation. It was a clandestine group of whose existence very few were aware. Some of the books action takes place in Vichy France, somewhere very much the subject of Cowburn's spleen - "truly the comic opera setting of officialdom wallowing in mediocrity" with the rest in the Occupied Zone and. briefly, Spain and Portugal.
What amazes me reading this is the understatement of Cowburn , "jumped out of airplane at 500 feet and got on with it." Even though Cowburn grew up in France the risks taken were unbelievable, while the attrition rate of his fellow agents was approximately 50%. Attrition here means captured and executed.
The biggest risk to the networks set up was infiltration by collaborators who then betrayed everyone.
This is not a James Bond book, its all very matter of fact. This however does not detract from the tension the author and his fellow agents lived under.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
It was rumoured that Hollywood stars would go to any lengths for the privilege of being photographed by the good looking . brilliantly talented and ultra-fashionable portrait photographer Leslie Searle.
But what was this gifted creature doing in such an English village backwater as Salcott St Mary's And why - and how- did he disappear? If a crime had been committed , was it murder... or fraud.. or simply some macabre p[practical joke?
This mystery features Tey's detective, Alan Grant attempting to solve the disappearance of Searle.
This is very good, with the reader able to solve the riddle as all the information is available but close attention has to be paid. Tey only got to write seven novels prior to her untimely death which was a shame as she gets better and better with each outing.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
Spring, 1941. Britain is losing the war.
Paris is occupied by the Nazi's, dark and silent at night. But when the clouds part, and moonlight floods the city,a Resistance leader called Mathieu steps out to begin work.
The fighters of the French Resistance are determined not to give up. These courageous men and women- young and old, aristocrats and night club owners, teachers and students - help downed British airmen reach the border with Spain.
But as the military police heightens surveillance, Mathieu and his team face a new threat, dispatched from the Reich to destroy them all.
This is the fourth book of Furst's I've read out of fourteen. These books are that good I am rationing them because it would be a shame to race through them.
Furst has the ability to ratchet up the tension from the start while writing of the extraordinary courage that so many displayed during the time of the German atrocities in Europe.
The writing is minimalist, the story goes from event to event detailing success's and failures. Unfortunately the failures are catastrophic with no second chances.
Sensational and can't be recommended highly enough.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Lord Peter Wimsey bent down over General Fentiman and drew the "Morning Post" gently away from the gnarled old hands. Then, with a quick jerk, he lifted the quiet figure. It came up all of a piece, stiff as a wooden doll...
But who killed the general?
Sayers is the master from the 'golden age' of crime writing. This is another thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery with the trade mark humour and great banter between the characters.
This was published in 1928 and many of the characters here are suffering scars from the Great War which Sayers handles with great sympathy.
This is an excellent read and like all her books is recommended.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Its been 4 years since I've read this and its still in my opinion the second best of the Bond books. Goldfinger is far and away the best but this is a good entertainment.
If you've read this book you'll know that the film adaptation is taken straight from it and makes the film my favourite in the series.
This isn't literature but pure escapism perfect for a flight, and there's nothing wrong with pure escapism at anytime.
I love most of the Bond books which these days tend to suffer from tiresome revisionism by tiresome individuals who want everything and everyone to agree to their tiresome world view. But as I don't have anytime for tiresome people I will continue to enjoy these stories again and again.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
Leys' Physical Training College was famous for its excellent discipline, and Miss Lucy Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to give a psychology lecture there. But she had to admit that the health and vibrant beauty of the students made her feel just a little inadequate.
Then there was a nasty accident.....
Another high quality mystery from Josephine Tey published in 1946. Her humour and ear for conversation is outstanding and make this is very pleasant read.
This isn't a story of multiple corpses laying about the country house but a tale of friendship taken to the nth degree.
Thursday, August 24, 2017
In 1953, acclaimed travel essayist Jan Morris was in a singular place: scaling the previously-unclimbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and the other members of what would become one of history's most celebrated mountaineering expeditions.
From the new 1999 Introduction by the author:
The book , which I wrote in the 1950's, needs to be read with a strong dose of historical sympathy, for everything has changed since then. I have changed myself- I was living and working as James Morris in those days- but Britain and the world have changed hardly less. Few such moments (Climbing Everest) now could be accepted around the globe with such generous and uncomplicated pleasure.
The book gets its title from the fact that the announcement of the successful climb reached London on the Queens coronation day in 1953.
The narrative relates more to the logistics of keeping dispatches and announcement in regards to the expedition secret from newspaper rivals than the technical aspects of the climb, although Morris went over 20,000 feet. Dispatches to London were taken from Everest by runners who managed to get them to the nearest radio generally within 8 days.
To enable the announcement of the expeditions success to reach London on coronation day the runners made it in about 6 days helped by a large wage increase.
A great story of great daring- there were no "safe rooms" if someone said something nasty in these days- it was 'iron men, wooden ships" stuff.
Morris has never written a bad paragraph and all the writing in this as usual,is beautifully understated; a is a wonderful read.
Monday, August 14, 2017
It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals...............
It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented.
The above is from the authors preface. This like the book itself is so understated its chilling. The preface further states that he does not go into numbers to any great extent as him doing it would add nothing to to atrocities recounted many times. The one set of numbers he does recount is there were approximately 640 humans in his train to Auschwitz, within 24 hours 500 of these humans no longer existed.
This book like ...Ivan Denisovich is about the will to survive for some humans. Many did horrible things to enable their survival, Levi recounts some of these events stating what these people did, he admires them in a way but does not ever wish to see these people again.
This was a death camp, the ever present view of the chimneys smoking was a constant reminder what eventually awaited them all. The "selections", when a new shipment of humans was due, camp authorities went through the barracks and selected 7% of the camp population, generally because they were failing physically sometimes just on a whim for death to make room. This was 7% of 12,000 humans; twenty four hours later this 7% no longer existed.
Again, this terror is recounted in such an understated way it makes it doubly chilling.
This is one of those books like Denisovich that should be required reading in schools. It was initially published in 1947 but did not find an audience until the early 50's. Even at the time of original publication the denial machine was attempting to re-write events, sadly the denial machine is still trying to deny the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
When the "Bright Young Things" meet the "Old Regime" on a Scottish grouse Moor, the real sport begins...
Jane Dacre felt that Scotland was a thoroughly respectable place- but that was before she encountered Albert Gates at Dalloch Castle. Though of impeccable family, Albert is a surrealist painter and greatly given to outrageous pranks.
This is Mitford's first novel which was published in 1931.
Its very funny in parts with some acute observations in others. She writes a couple of pages regarding why the men who fought in WWI should not be mocked for their post war attitudes, this was after one of the young people got a bit smart trying to impress the party. Poignant is the word to describe what she has written.
It is a first book and its disjointed, Jane our hero doesn't even make an appearance until chapter five. However, this was the start of a learning curve which resulted in "Love in a Cold Climate" , one of the funniest books I've ever read.
Worth the effort, and again I do love this between the wars period. It is said today many young people are layabout but if you came from money in the times of this book you really had to do nothing for ever.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a principled heroine caught between two worlds: one 'mercenary and ambitious' the other' entirely deficient in self knowledge, generosity and humility.'
Raised since the age of nine at Mansfield Park, the grand home of her uncle Sit Thomas Bertram and his family, Fanny quickly become vital to the happiness of the house-hold. But when she and her four cousins- Ton, maria, Julia and Edmund- reach the age of marriage, Fanny is forced to confront the artifice and insincerity of her upbringing as she wards off a serious rival.
I don't know whether I enjoyed this or not, there is amazing detail of family life as there has to be as the book is almost a one scene setting. I suppose life was like this at the time . There were very few entertainment options, only the wealthy could travel even the shortest distance's, so the smallest things took on importance that would not even be noticed in our enlightened times.
There is humour throughout this book, little asides by Austen that are clearly digs at attitudes of the times.
Our hero Fanny Price has nasty things happen to her, but Austen never goes full Dickensian and has her sent off to a gulag in Siberia by her nasty aunt Mrs Norris. Its more Mrs Norris is an old bitch and life moves around her.
So, the story is a bit too static for me and it is a formula tale, so the outcome is fairly obvious but I can see why Austen has survived, reading the book time slips away which for me is the sign of quality.
The thing that really disturbs me is this cousins marrying. This practice may explain a lot of the undershot jaws you see these days.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery.
Four men wanted by the police throughout the world- four men dedicated to prevent injustice, and to punish those whom justice could not touch.
Originally published in 1905 this is a short 150 page book detailing the plan to kill a British politician who is to introduce a bill into Parliament which would cause the death of many.
The whole thing is a set up for a locked room murder. Its short, two decent baths sees it read and its fun. The murder weapon is very subtle and the clues are there if you pay attention. A decent Sunday diversion.
Saturday, August 5, 2017
The poison was cyanide, slipped into the sacred wine of ecstasy just before it was presented to Miss Cara Quayne at the House of the Sacred Flame.
This is a very ordinary detective story. It is set almost entirely in a single room.
For this story Marsh has given Alleyn, her detective, a "Watson" in the form of a journalist who continually feeds Alleyn questions like "How in the world did you discover this?' which gives Alleyn the excuse to give an explanation which is the only way of progressing the story.
When the killer is unmasked we find the entire lead up has nothing to do with the solution. Disappointing, one of Marsh's weaker efforts.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Every morning Hakan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. However, one day winter's day he fails to come home. It seems the retired naval officer has vanished without trace.
Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation but he has a personal interest in the case as Hakan's son is engaged to his daughter Linda.
This is the last in the Wallander series and like the entire series for me its more about the journey than the destination. There is no great mystery here, its very solvable but its a joy to read . I like the ruminations on life and the quiet depressive personality of Wallander as he doggedly solves the mystery.
Mankell tends to be a bit preachy with his left wing thinking, but the stories are so good it doesn't detract from any enjoyment. You have to ration these books as Mankell died in 2015 so there's no more.
Friday, July 28, 2017
Room 40 was the unofficial name of the British Admiralty's World War I code breaking organisation. Its mastery of the German Navy and Diplomatic codes had as profound an effect on the outcome of the First World War as Bletchly Park's penetration of Axis codes did on the Second. But for the work of Room 40, there would have been no Battle of Jutland, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 might have succeeded, the United States would not have joined the Allies in April 1917.
These were the code breakers who broke the Zimmerman Telegram that brought the US into WWI.
When I bought this I thought it would be more about the individuals involved in the code breaking, instead I found that the author had used each instant of code breaking to explain the military action that resulted or did not result because of this. There are biographical details of the main organizers but this is more regarding the military out come.
Not that there is not a goldmine of information it was just not what I expected. There were 248 vessels involved in the Battle of Jutland, two fleets hammering each other. Battle on a massive scale.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the sinking of the Lusitania, it appears she was a legitimate military target and the one torpedo happened to hit armaments meant for the Allies. A massive loss of life followed, 1195 civilians, including 94 children, all of whom were unaware that they were travelling atop high explosives.
So, not the book I thought it would be but very interesting all the same.
Sunday, July 23, 2017
In January 1917 the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a cable to his Ambassador in Washington for transmission to the German Ambassador in Mexico. In it, Zimmermann announced that Germany was going to start unrestricted submarine warfare on all shipping,Allied and neutral, in the Atlantic. he then made a startling and audacious proposal: the German Ambassador was to offer the Mexican government an alliance directed against the United States and, furthermore, to ask the Mexicans to contact the Japanese to see if they could be persuaded to switch sides ( Japan was on the Allied side in the First World War). British Intelligence decoded the telegram and passed it onto the Americans, with momentous consequences.
From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan
The momentous consequence was that this was the final catalyst that brought the United States into the First World War at a time when Britain was broke and was only months away from having to reach a settlement with the Germans.
This book backgrounds the German efforts to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Their thinking was if the US was tied up at home they would not have the inclination to fight in Europe even if the submarines were sinking tonnage of neutral shipping.
The US President, Woodrow Wilson , is shown to be so intellectually arrogant that all he could see was his vision for the world, not the reality of what was happening about him and he would not have come into the war without the translation of the telegram being supplied to him.
There is all the details of how the British with Russian assistance managed to obtain all the German codes which with some work enabled them to read all the German transmissions for the years of the war.
The British had one huge advantage which the Germans did not appreciate. British cable ships had cut all the German transatlantic cables at the start of the war ( day two actually). The Germans had to use British controlled cables or wireless but they were not duly alarmed because they were convinced that their codes could not be broken.
From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan.
This is fascinating from start to finish, its a short read ,170 pages, but reads like a thriller. Great stuff.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Hugh Drummond's wife, Phyllis, is kidnapped by one of the nastiest villains to have gone around, Irma Petersen. Petersen has done this to entrap Drummond and his cronies to avenge the death of her husband Carl.
Rather than kill Phyllis outright Irma makes a treasure hunt out of her setting clues for Drummond to locate his wife.
This story is totally over the top as a precursor to the Bond books should be, with "daring do" that makes Bond look like a wimp.
Published in 1928 this is great fun like all this series.
Thursday, July 20, 2017
Miranda Carter traces Blunt's transformations, from young member of the Bloomsbury circle, to left wing intellectual, to camouflaged member of the establishment. Until his treachery was made public, Blunt was celebrated for his ground breaking work on Poussin, Italian art, and Old Master drawings; at the Courtauld Institute he trained a whole generation of academics and curators. And yet even as he ascended from rebellion into outward conformity, he was homosexual when homosexuality was a crime, and a traitor when the penalty was death.
The last part of the above paragraph is a bit melodramatic seeing as he confessed to being a spy in 1964 but this wasn't made public until 1979.
This is an excellent read which the author has set it up in headings School boy, Undergraduate Recruit, Talent Spotter, Spy, Writer etc and has detailed his achievements and treachery in each part of his life.
He spyed for the Russians and although I've seen written previously that he did not do too much damage and that his spying did not result in any deaths, unlike Philby, the truth is he worked hard for the Russians getting them as much intelligence as he could lay his hands on.
The underlying story in this as it is in all the "Cambridge Spy Ring" books is Guy Burgess. Burgess may have been a drunk but he was the true believer and he drew the others around him, especially Blunt it seems, they were true friends, and they always gravitated back to each other.
The second underlying story in this and in all the other books is the sheer incompetence of the British Intelligence Services. These people were all member of the communist party at one stage when Russia really was intent on world domination but they all got work with UK intelligence services or highly sensitive positions within government. They were all 'establishment' except Cairncross, so they were just taken on.
Blunt worked for the Queen and did a great job as Surveyor of the Queens Pictures getting things is order when things were in total disarray and had a full life as an academic, not always popular but it was work of note and he was highly regarded by many.
What made me smile throughout is human nature, many of his life long friends suddenly could hardly remember meeting him once he was publicly named as a spy.
The author asks several times why Blunt was a spy.just as he was himself after he was disclosed publicly, she has no answer just as Blunt himself didn't, publicly anyway, but this is a interesting book about an interesting man who mastered compartmentalizing his life.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Susan was bright, petite, beautiful and white. When she was murdered, all the clues pointed straight to her dapper, well educated fiance who was black. The Homicide Bureau thought they had the case sewn up. Until Nero Wolfe uncovered a new kind of motive for murder.
These are always a good read, the mystery is easily solved but I don't read them for the riddle more for the excellent dialogue and the humour that Stout brought to his novels.
This is of the usual high standard, a short read, perfect for a cold Sunday on the couch.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
In 1936 at the age of 55, H. L. Mencken published s reminiscence of his Baltimore boyhood in The New Yorker. With this modest beginning, Mencken embarked on what would become the Days Trilogy, a long and magnificent adventure in autobiography by America's greatest journalist.
This is actually three books in one binding an edition by The Library of America. It is a great social history. Mencken starts writing about his boyhood from 1880 right through to when he is famous and travels the world.
As a Managing Editor he wasn't about inventing news to get the circulation ticking over so what is happening today has all been done before. He admits that he has "gilded the lily'in these memoirs as well but that doesn't matter because what we get is several hundred pages of fascinating writing that at times makes you laugh out loud at times and shake your head in disbelief at others.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Among the inhabitants of a properous mining town in New South Wales stalks a killer. two elderly bachelors have already died from cyanide poisoning.
When Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the half-aboriginal detective, arrives on the scene two months later he is faced with a cold trail- no motive, no clues- only vague descriptions of a woman who was on the scene at the time.
So Bony sits down to wait for what he feels must be the inevitable- a third killing...
This has excellent dialogue , very clever banter between the characters but if you hope to solve the mystery good luck as the solution comes completely out of the blue with no hint in the lead up.
This doesn't make it a dud book, just frustrating for the mystery reader who likes chance to have a guess at the solution.
Unlike the earlier books in the series (published 1958) there is not the accent on Bony's mixed race which is not mentioned.
Worth the read but like a lot of Christie the cheat by the author is massive.
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Since the accident that left her blind, Kelsey has become more difficult than ever. At least tis is what Alice told the psychiatrist.
Languishing in a house full of servants and unloving family, Kelsey has become bitter. She was driving the car that night. Geraldine did die, and Kelsey will never see again. but that was two long years ago. Time enough to heal. So why wold Kelsey now want to end her life with a grain of morphine.
This is the first Margaret Millar book I have read and it is very, very dark, full of repulsive characters which makes for a fantastic read.
Even the Detective Inspector is next level strange when compared to the British versions of Marsh, Tey etc ( this is set in Toronto).
There is murder, there is a mystery and the solution keeps you guessing until the last few pages.
This is one of the best of this genre I've read in a long time.
Plus I discovered after buying the book that Ms. Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar, who under the pseudonym Ross MacDonald wrote the superb Lew Archer series, which is one of the best.
Margaret Millar is on the " must find" list.
You go to a mans funeral in January and then he goes and dies again in June.
This is the mystery that Albert Campion and his irreverent man servant Lugg have to solve in this very funny wee book. Its only 128 pages.
Not a great technical murder mystery but Allingham's stories generally aren't, its very character driven and makes for great reading. It very nearly goes Wodehousian which is never bad thing,.
I can highly recommend anything Allingham wrote and she is still in print which says a lot for her quality. This was written in 1937.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
Solzhenitsyn's devastating picture of one day in the life of a prisoner in a remote Siberian labour camp has been hailed by the world's critics as an undisputed masterpiece. This moving novel is a powerful expose of the corrupt conditions that Solzhenitsyn suffered in a concentration camp under Stalin and is a scathing indictment of Soviet bureaucracy.
I first read this many years ago and the idea of a crust of bread being the height of luxury stayed with me and was just as moving with this second reading.
These men are forced out to work in -27 degrees, their wildest fantasy is that the temperature will drop to -41 degrees meaning they don't have to go to work.
They have to build in these temperatures but have great difficulty because the mortar often freezes before it can be laid .
An incredible read, its very short, only 156 pages but it should be read by all generations.
The " great Soviet experiment" to be mocked for eternity
Monday, June 26, 2017
He hoaxed, humbugged, dazzled and delighted the whole world with his magnificent ballyhoo of the unique and the wonderful!
Inventor of modern high pressure advertising, the man who discovered General Ton Thumb, the twenty-five inch man, P. T Barnum founded the famous circus that bore his name, made two fortunes and died worth a million pounds.
And as he died in 1891 so, a million pounds was a million pounds not a one bedroom apartment.
If there was ever a man who encapsulates the American drive for success it was Barnum. He had vision, he had a mainline into the taste of the people and he had an enormous work ethic.
His first real success was the American Museum, then General Tom Thumb, then Chang and Eng , the Siamese twins then his big punt and huge earner the Swedish singer Jenny Lind. This run of success lead to his first fortune. Then he lost it. But he went at it again made another fortune and then finally the circus.
This book debunks the well known expression attributed to him -"There's a sucker born every minute"- Wallace states that this slang "sucker" was not in use at the time Barnum was meant to have used it. What he did say was - "the American people love to be hoaxed".
Barnum was friends with royalty, presidents and the wealthy. Reading this he was generally fair to his performers and realized if people aren't compensated well, they won';t work well.
He was a very interesting man. Wallace's writing leaves a bit to be desired, I found it full of fact but a dull read.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Agatha Troy, world famous painter, is inveigled into accepting a commission to paint the 70 - year- old Sir Henry Acred, the Grand Old Man of the stage. But just as she has completed her portrait, the old actor dies.
The dramatic circumstances of his death are such the Scotland Yard is called in- in the person of Troy's long absent husband, Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
This is an excellent story involving an exceptionally dysfunctional family. The story of the family and Troy's involvement with them while completing her commission is more entertaining than the solving of the mystery.
As always Marsh is outstanding.
Monday, June 19, 2017
This is a 'memoir' not a history and for me it is a aide memoire. The book is set mostly in the 1970's telling of Bollinger's growing up in Wellington, joining a band and travelling the country insistently for meals and love, it wasn't for wealth.
The aide memoire for me is I moved to Wellington in 1977 as a 17 year old and this brings back many many memories of how raw and fun Wellington was for a young chap from Timaru.
As well an outline of Nick Bollinger's life it is part social history of New Zealand and a history of New Zealand bands at the time. If you tried to explain today to a 25 year old how in the late 70's early 80's you could not go to the bar in a nightclub and get a drink, it was waitress service only, they would think you're mad. Or just ignore you as really really tedious but it was true.
The band he traveled with for two years "Rough Justice' rubbed shoulders with all the muso's travelling the brewery circuit and there are delightful little tidbits , Ricky Ball's band history before Hello Sailor for example. There are great little pieces like this that are news to me.
Rough Justice was a Rick Bryant Band. I never saw them I don't think but I saw the Jive Bombers lots and I can say Rick Bryant has never taken anything of himself home, he leaves it all for the audience.
There are many Auckland memories for me as well as I move there as a 19 year old in late 1979. There is a lot of detail regarding the un-licenced clubs that tried to do the right thing for music but could not survive without a liquor licence which was impossible to obtain. This was a real shame and was the brewery lobby that prevented these entrepreneurs from making a dollar.
I spent hundreds of hours at the Gluepot and all the city pubs that had music. I had the best nicest piss taking of me in Queen Street by the Topp Twins when I was a young Police Constable. This book brought all these memories back and I can thank Nick Bollinger for this.
Last but not least Bollinger saw 'Little Feat' play at the Wellington Town Hall, bastard, there will not be many New Zealanders who can say they have seen that outfit.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Twenty years after Notes From A Small Island was published it was suggested by Bill Bryson's publisher that a follow up be written. I am very glad that it has been. I love Bryson's easy rambling style, full of humour and information that you won't find probably anywhere else.
In this book he re-visits some places from his original book but this mostly contains places that he hasn't written about before.
He starts in Bognor Regis and ends at Cape Wrath. A line is drawn between these two locations and is referred to as the Bryson line. He works his trip east and west of this entirely self created geometrical divide.
Bill Bryson is the teacher I never had, full of information with a sense of humour that never stops, read and enjoy.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
The victim was engaged to marry Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter's sister. The man accused of murdering him is the Duke of Denver, Lord Peters brother. And his trial - in the House of Lords- is about to begin. The the Duke refuses to help his defence in anyway.
Published in 1926 this story involves the entire Wimsey clan. This is one of the first stories by Sayers and she introduces characters that remain until her last Wimsey book.
When it comes to 'golden age' detective writing Sayers is on a totally different level than most and this was at a time when there are many superb authors writing the genre.
This as normal has great language, the usual strong and interesting female leads and Wimsey doesn't go 'full Bertie Wooster " too often.
This is a very good multi-layered story; you can not go wrong reading anything Dorothy Sayers has ever written.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
It is a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder the trusted old butler of Norton Manor. Barrister turned amateur detective, Frank Amberly, has reason to believe the shooting involves the nervy young lady discovered at the scene of the crime, a snooping gentleman in the halls of Greythorne and then a second dead body.
Published in 1933 this is a run of the mill whodunnit and the first I've read by Ms Heyer, who was better known at the time for her historical novels.
The motive isn't hard to figure out and the the killer isn't either, its just a wait to see what some part minor characters play in the whole thing. The detective Amberly isn't particularly likable either being a bit of a smart arse without any humour.
Not a great tale but the dialogue was sharp enough to warrant reading more of Heyers crime books.
Sunday, June 11, 2017
On capture, British officers and men were routinely told by the Germans: ' For you the war is over'. Nothing could be further from the truth. British prisoners of war merely exchanged one barbed-wire battleground for another.....
It was a war with heart breaking consequences; more than 12,000 PoWs died, many of them murdered, to be buried in shallow unmarked graves.
This books is based on contemporary journals and memoirs of the prisoners that survived and were eventually returned to Britain.
The book is broken down in , "being captured", "being a prisoner", 'the camp world", surviving in the camps", "escaping" and "returning home". No matter what chapter you read, the suffering is heart breaking. Large parts of the book are direct quotes taken from diaries etc, stories told without exaggeration, just facts. Individual Germans showed kindness and some humanity but the regime was almost inhumanly cruel until it was apparent that the war was lost and then back tracking became the norm.
Conditions varied from camp to camp, but in general British PoWs were made to suffer and who without the Red Cross and private care packages many more would have starved to death. Prisoners were put to work in salt mine, coal mines and multi digit sub-zero temperatures, much of which was denied by the German authorities.
Reading how the PoWs were treated is sickening as a whole but as a document it is enlightening. I've read that the terms of the Versailles Treaty sowed the seeds for the Second World War but this does not explain the cruelty of the German nation as a whole toward opposing combatants in their custody during the Great War.
Monday, June 5, 2017
Tom Zoellner travels the globe to tell the story of the innovation and sociological impact of the railway technology that transformed the world- anbd could well change it again. From the frigid trans-Siberian railroad to the antiquated Indian railways to the Japanese- style bullet trains.
This is more a series of essays that have then been bound into a book. It starts strongly with a rail journey from the north of Scotland to Lands End with interesting history on development of the steam engine and observations of the passing Scottish and English countrysides.
The second is essay is about the Indian rail system, a system with truly staggering numbers- passengers carried, freight carried, number of schedules trains, staff employed and on and on. A fact I found that most fascinating is - the steel rails in India, particularly those nearest to urban stations, must be frequently replaced because poor people have the habit of defecating on them..... The uric acid in human feces gradually eats through the steel fasteners... that hold the rails onto their ties.
The third chapter is New York to Los Angels and runs nearly a third of the book. The Russian section is disappointing, the author gets bitten by a rabid dog and has to abandon the trip half way through it.
There are chapters that follow on China into Tibet, South America and the final chapter supposedly about the AVE rapid trains in Spain but it segues off into Americas plan for rapid rail.
Potentially this could have been much better than its turned out. There is a standalone book on the Indian rail system, instead we get these essays that have a rushed feeling about them. There is nothing wrong with the writing or facts but it feels like a series of New Yorker pieces.
As mentioned, I was disappointed the Russian journey was shortened, I was looking forward to comparing it to Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride - but I'm assuming the author didn't get bitten deliberately just to annoy me.
This makes the perfect bathroom book, you can dip into into without having to retain any thread.
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Driving home from Italy, Guffy Randall passed by the Hotel Beauregard at Mentone, where ... he saw a small man, armed with pistol, climbing out of a ground floor window. Guffy, who knew the manager well, stopped to tell him about the incident, and learnt that several other suspicious characters were also in the hotel. After inquiries these turned out to be Albert Campion and two friends engaged in in a fantastic and fateful pursuit of a European Crown.
What transpires is a very good espionage tale set in the British countryside . The search for a European Crown is actually British Intelligence Services attempting to locate a deed to a European state that would give them access to a port and oil (sounds familiar).
This an adventure in the style of Buchan, but with lots of humour. Allingham writes great characters; my favourite is Campions man servant Magersfontein Lugg, known simply as Lugg retired burglar, and as usual she has good strong female characters with sundry weird ones thrown into the mix.
Published in 1933 this is great fun
Sunday, May 28, 2017
Elizabeth screamed again, a long blood curdling scream that echoed through the squad room. the horror of it gut-wrenched even the detectives of the 87th Precinct;..
Yet they played the tapes of the mass assault again and again. It could be th best clue yet to a mess of arson, dope, homicide and porn.
The above blurb makes this run of the mill police procedural sound much more interesting that it turns out to be.
McBain is solid but this is one of his lesser efforts and without the outrageously bigoted and smelly Detective Ollie Weekes it would be totally forgettable. I'd recommend giving this a miss unless you are a McBain completist.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Jaikie and Dougal, two past members of the Glasgow Street gang, The Gorbals Die Hards adopted by Mr Dickson McCunn visit McCunn at his country retirement home in a novel is set six years after the first book that introduced these characters, 'Huntingtower".
From there the two young men take off tramping. At the first nights accommodation they find a newspaper magnate who has recently escaped from a kidnapping where he was mistaken for a local politician.
They are asked to go to the country estate Castle Gay, of the newspaper owner, Mr Craw and arrange for him to be uplifted by his staff. On arrival at the castle it is found that this is not possible due to citizens of a European country wanting Mr Craw for their own purposes , to legitimize there control of the country and by another group wanting to re-install the legitimate ruler through the use of his newspaper empire.
This is a 'thriller'' but its all boys own stuff, where doing the right thing and being a decent person will see the good guys win in the end. There is great descriptions of the Scottish countryside, great dialogue and its just 'nice'. There's nothing wrong with doing the right thing and decency winning, in fact its something I admire.
This isn't in the league of the Hannay books, certainly not as serious but a very pleasant read.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
The car lies wrecked and abandoned near the world's longest fence, the " rabbit " fence, in the wheat belt of Western Australia. Of its owner there is no sign. Has George Loftus simply decamped, for reasons of his own? Or is it a case of murder? Detective Inspector Bonaparte suspects the worst, and is determined to find the body - and the murderer.
From 1937 we have this 'Bony' mystery. This is the first of this series I've read, although I saw the television series many years ago starring James Laurenson.
Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is half Aboriginal / half European and a brilliant detective. The mixed race issue is a factor in the story, generally with abuse towards "black fellas"and I assume this was quite a punt having him as the main character in a series written in Australia between 1928 and 1964.
This novel has two mysteries running in tandem which tie in beautifully at the end. The story is set rurally and centres around the small town pub and weekend dances that were a regular part of Australian and New Zealand life until not that long ago.
Initially Upfields writing took some getting used to, but once I got used to the cadence, I thoroughly enjoyed it,. There is good characterization for such a short story ( 177 pages) and a lot of humour.
Recommended if you are into this genre.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Allan Quatermain is hired to travel into the African interior to locate the estranged brother of one of his client's.
The tale is one of over coming hardship,surviving using their wits when confronted by an extremely blood thirsty tribal chieftain and the location of a massive treasure. Even after locating fabulous wealth they still have to escape a final threat to their lives.
This was published in 1885 and as an adventure story it stands up fairly well today. Attitudes have changed of course but if you are able to read the book for what it is, an adventure yarn, rather than compare today's more enlightened attitudes to whats written you will enjoy it.
The dedication says it all - To all the big and little boys who read it.
This book is nothing like the truly appalling movie of the same name based on this book starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger.
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Inspector Grant travels north to Scotland for a holiday by train; he needs the break as stress , manifesting itself as chronic claustrophobia is slowly sending him mad.
As the train berths he is on hand when a passenger in a compartment near his is found dead. While observing this discovery he inadvertently picks up a newspaper from this compartment and later discovers a piece of verse scrawled on it in pencil.
While fishing on a friends estate on holiday he becomes somewhat haunted by the dead man and the lines of verse so for his mental well being begins a private investigation into the death.
This is excellent, Tey writes beautifully,with great humour and of course constructs a very good murder mystery.
As the previous owner of my edition has written on the cover- "Jolly good, well written".
Josephine Tey, the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacIntosh is now one of my favourite detective fiction writers. If you see her stuff about, grab it, it will be mostly second hand as unfortunately great swathes of writing talent from the last 100 years are just not getting re-issued. This is her last book published in 1952 the year she died aged 56 of cancer.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Bill Masen wakes up in hospital expecting his eyes to have their bandages removed and his sight restored after being struck in the face by a poisonous plant.
What he is initially unaware of is that the previous night the majority of the worlds population had viewed a meteor shower. This next morning the majority of the worlds population are permanently blind, million upon millions of his fellow citizens are blind.
Being one of the few people still with sight he sees civilization break down within days.
To add to what is already the end of the world as it was known deadly plants with the ability to walk called 'Triffids" are killing anyone who comes within range of them.
This book tells the story of the sighted few and their survival, battling the plants, plague and each other, knowing that they have to start the human race again. Countries and races no longer exist, the devastation has caused such a loss of life that all there are is humans.
I remember hearing this as a radio drama when I was a kid and it was scary. I've just read the book as a 56 year old and its scary. The most unsettling for me is the blindness, something I dread.
This is an outstanding book, there are a few questions asked by the author that some would say are particularly relevant to the world today, the way we treat the planet etc, but mostly this is just a thrilling read. Its so good it must be due to be made into a movie again and have the story completely destroyed.
Monday, May 8, 2017
" Julian Symons provides a stylish spin-off from the Sherlockian revival. It tells of a fading actor playing the Great Detective in a television series who persuades himself that by following in the master's footsteps he can solve a string of apparently unrelated murders: the Karate Killings."
Once you get past the absurdity of the 'hero's fantasy you are still left with a quite absurd story filled with very unsympathetic characters.
This story was published in 1975 and I assume written just prior and as a 70's book its full of slang particular to that time i.e 'birds' 'poofs'. Language that has been consigned to the rubbish dump as it should be. I read lots of books published much earlier and they sound more contemporary than this.
So this is a short 'entertainment' which I would recommend giving a miss. Evidently the author wrote many mysteries that come highly recommended but this is all a bit silly plus its solvable three quarters of the way through.
Saturday, May 6, 2017
"Detective Dick Martin is leaving Scotland Yard. His final job is to bring in Lew Pheeney, who is wanted in connection with a bank robbery. When Lew confesses to trying to open a dead man's tomb, however, Martin must unravel a mystery. He races to find the connection between an attractive librarian, a mad scientist and the vanished heir to a vast fortune, as everyone becomes entangled in a web of fraud, deceit, torture and murder".
This started off as a standard murder mystery and then segued into a Gothic horror and then back to a plain old 'who dunnit', which was all very strange.
The story is interesting enough but there are some strange quirks about the writing. The 'hero' Dick Martin is known on the force as 'Slick', a nick name, Wallace refers to him in some paragraphs as 'Dick' and other's as 'Slick'. I've never come across this before and for me it was annoying, having the major character known under two different names.
The way the chapters are constructed, they are very episodic,would make for a great television adaptation which was unlikely to have been the authors intention seeing as this was published in 1926.
As stated above it try's to be a horror story and a murder mystery and falls a bit short on both accounts. The highlight was some great dialogue between characters but this wasn't enough to save this from a 5/10.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
"Far from the gentle slopes of the Hundred Acre Wood lies The Red House, the setting for A.A. Milne's only detective story, where secret passages, uninvited guests, a sinister valet and a puzzling murder lay the foundations for a classic crime caper.
When the local police prove baffled, it is up to a guest at a local inn to appoint himself 'Sherlock Holmes' and, together with his friend and loyal 'Watson', delve deeper into mysteries of the dead man."
The author, best known for writing the Winnie the Pooh books was hugely prolific as a writer who wrote one detective story and this is it from 1922.
This is just great fun, featuring the old 'English Country House' where someone gets murdered early on and then the mystery is solved by some nosy individual.
The nosy individual in this case is a complete amateur who happens along shortly after the killing,and drags in a friend to assist.
I was rapt to find a copy of this, I knew it existed but its not something you would see often in second hand stores. I assume its available on Kindle so if you like this type of story I can recommend it.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
"The murder was planned, deliberately and at obvious risk, to take place bang in the middle of a private performance of Hamlet.
Behind the scenes there were thirty-one suspects. In the select and distinguished audience twenty-seven. 'Suspicions' said Appleby, 'crowd thick and fast upon us.' "
I read the first 50 odd pages and was on the verge of discarding this but as it's written in four parts- Prologue, Development, Denouement and Epilogue, I decided to hang in until Part 2. I'm glad I did as the story picked up from there until a very good ending.
The trouble I found with Part 1 was that it is 99.9% about the setting up of this private 'Hamlet' performance at a grand country estate, Having virtually no knowledge of anything Shakespearean the entire 75 pages was a struggle until as stated Part 2, where it becomes a standard 'who dunnit'.
Innes has created a good 'Inspector' with Mr Appleby who goes about his work with some humour and a lot of patience. The second niggle however is the 'cast of thousands' that are suspect. Even though the story is set in a castle bigger than Blenheim Palace thirty odd suspects is a bit many and gives the author the chance to pad the tale out with speculation.
This has a very good ending, with all the information in the story as how the crime is committed; the reader just has to pay attention keeping track of the movements of several dozen people.
Again, these English country estates are lethal, hardly a weekend seems to go by without a murder or two at one.
Michael Innes was the pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart an academic of some note the author of several novels and biographies under his real name and the 'Appleby' crime series under this assumed name.
Friday, April 28, 2017
" Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse Jane Harden are almost too nervous to operate. The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary- and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead.
Within hours he does die, although the operation was a complete success, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn must find out why....".
This is a good solid who dunnit from Ngaio Marsh, she writes very well and the cheat, i.e. the clue that would have given the reader a chance, is no where as outrageous as something Agatha Christie would throw in. The reader can have an educated guess but without a bit of missing information , that's all it is,a guess.
As always, very entertaining for those of us who like our detective fiction from a simpler, more well mannered time.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
"At the outbreak of World War II, Lady Sophia Garfield dreamt of becoming a beautiful spy..
But she never imagined having to cope with a nest of German agents in her own home.
Or they would murder her maid, and hold her beloved bulldog hostage.."
This is very funny, not as sophisticated farce as her friend Evelyn Waugh was writing but still very good. She has a good crack at the Upper Class and all religions, especially "Popery".
This was written in 1939 during the "phony war" period and Mitford apologizes in this second edition for any perceived flippancy.
This was Mitford's third book written before her two best known, "The Pursuit of Love " and " Love in a Cold Climate" and you can see with this effort she just about had the formula right.
Not a deep read but again an insight into the how the Upper class lived between the wars.