Burfobookalicious

Burfobookalicious

I have always been fascinated by the power of words and the ability of gifted writers to ignite the imagination, fuel the intellect and feed the soul. Reading is the supreme indulgence and perhaps connects us most intimately with what it is to be human, traversing emotions and the very history of mankind.

Go Wild!
The Extinction Club - Jeffrey Moore

This was my first experience of work by Canadian author, Jeffrey Moore and perhaps to the author's credit 'The Extinction Club" isn't easily pidgeon-holed. It's certainly thrilling, but there are also elements of brutal crime, a key character (Celeste) is a teenager, but it's not really a 'young adult' novel, at one point crumbs even seemed to be leading down the path of a ghost/monster story, but no. What does stand out is the use of the book as a brash exposé of the abject capacity of man for cruelty and the depraved abuse of wild animals, as well as their own kind. Designed to be hard-hitting, in parts the book adopts the tenor of a documentary and yet the tension builds from the classic clash of good and evil.

 

Nile Nightingale is an unlikely hero. Hiding out in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, from a series of stateside misdemeanors and a litigious ex-partner with designs on his inheritance, the recovering alcoholic is in poor shape. However, when he rescues a discarded burlap sack from sinking into marshland, he discovers inside 14 year-old Celeste, beaten and stabbed. Both damaged by their respective experiences. Nile and Celeste contrive to rehabilitate each other and rediscover the spirit to not be cowed, but rather to find the courage to stand up for what it right.

 

For Nile especially, the adventure smacks of a chance for redemption, but brimming with challenge, the temptation to take the path of least resistance is palpable. In describing the burgeoning connection of the main characters the book is also touching and ultimately demonstrates that humankind is simultaneously capable of great virtue and altruism, which can set the species apart.

 

Thus, by casting a light on the dichotomy between the hunted and the hunters, Moore alludes to the possibility that the abuse of power is the greatest weakness of all. Still, for all the uncompromising wildlife protection zeal, Moore's inclusion of wacky cameos, such as Welshman Myles Llewellyn, at least confers a little lightness to the barbarous gloom. Bore da! 

Review
4 Stars
Morse goes temporarily missing...
The Way Through The Woods (Inspector Morse, #10) - Colin Dexter

Book 10/13 of the crime novels involving Chief Inspector Morse and I think on balance this is my favourite so far. Clearly, the fact that it won Colin Dexter the CWA Gold Dagger (again) in 1992, for the best crime novel of that year confers a gilt-edged pedigree, but within such an impressive series of high quality works of fiction (one might even call them ‘bodies of work’), this example stands tall.

 

On a rather random whim, Morse decides to take a holiday and notwithstanding his negative past experiences of such ventures, he books into The Bay Hotel, Lyme Regis, Dorset. The absence allows time for Morse to ponder a riddle spotted in 'The Times', apparently concerning the year-long police investigation into a 'Swedish maiden', missing in Oxford and follow the subsequent responses of editors and readers in the correspondence columns. At home, when the media starts asking questions, the absence of his star detective also confirms Superintendent Strange’s determination to place Morse in charge of the stalled investigation upon his return, even tasking DS Lewis with trying to entice Morse back early. And thus, amid such expectations the detective duo are back in harness.

 

In common with the other books in the series, Morse manages to lust over and make lasting impressions upon several interesting female characters. But, we also get to see more of the ‘below-the-waterline’ complexity of Morse in his self-imposed emotional isolation. This is particularly true when Morse hurries to see his colleague Max, in the hospital, but also in the unaccustomed warmth, which DS Lewis alone seems to rekindle. Indeed, once again it is Lewis who is the “catalytic factor in the curious chemistry of Morse’s mind.”

 

This book also introduces pathologist, Dr Laura Robson, for the first time. A feisty Geordie, the fair Laura quickly takes to verbal duelling with Morse, but the instant respect she has commanded also bodes well for how her relationship with the Chief Inspector (arch sceptic of the forensic sciences) will play out in the remaining volumes.

 

One of the interesting traits of Dexter’s work is the genteel veneer through which he filters the attendant brutality of violent crime. Morse rarely casts judgement, simply assembles the facts and dispassionately solves the presenting puzzle. In fact, what I regard as the ‘Oxford effect’, often gentrifies quite sordid circumstances and occasionally leaves Morse and his unrefined proclivities seeming quite tawdry by comparison. Still, in this novel, Morse seems more relaxed (perhaps an expression of holiday fever, or the reminder of his own mortality) and openly closer to Lewis. For example, Morse even entrusts his sergeant to interview the missing girl’s mother, dispatching Lewis to Stockholm. Albeit such delegation pragmatically side-stepped the Chief Inspector’s fear of flying, the decision also highlighted his dependence on the dogged efforts and boundless support of Lewis.

 

Again, Morse confidently posits a hypothesis based on the seemingly impenetrable array of facts, which in turn is dismantled by the developing evidence, only to be adapted anew as Morse sculpts out the truth, until the final explanation is revealed. In this case a very satisfying conclusion and the usual acknowledgement that you have to hand it to Morse - he is clever!

 

Review
4.5 Stars
A Plum Novel
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

Few writers can raise a smile to the lips after just one paragraph and have me snortling by the end of the first page. But then, P.G.Wodehouse remains an exceptional talent and in Wooster & Jeeves he created a rare literary tonic. Described by the Society (UK) bearing his name as “the greatest humourist of the twentieth century”, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (affectionately elided to ‘Plum’ by friends and family) has also retained the capacity to lift spirits into the new millennium. Clearly he was a writer of his time, replete with well-defined British social strata of the 1920's and 30's, but it is surely his ability to lampoon the elite classes and etch caricatures such as Bertie Wooster and Aunt Dahlia into the national consciousness, which is his greatest legacy.

 

In this short novel, against his better judgement, Wooster is lured to Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, home of Sir Watkyn Bassett, to rescue the faltering engagement of long-term friends ‘Gussie’ Fink-Nottle and the daughter of the host – Madeline. This is not entirely an altruistic act, since Bertie has every reason to believe that should the betrothal not be realized, he may be expected to step into the breach in Madeline’s marital prospects. This is consequently a matter of paramount concern to Bertie, dwarfed only by the abject horror such a turn of events would visit upon Sir Watkyn!

 

Thus, the familiar entourage is transported to the country, where ‘Gussie’, ‘Stinker’ Pinker, Roderisk Spode, ‘Stiffy’ Byng, Emerald Stoker, et al proceed to dispense the farcical social carnage, which generally accompanies their ludicrous interactions. And once again it falls to that paragon of calm, Jeeves (Bertie’s valet) to divine a course to preserve his employer’s bachelor status and simultaneously settle a whole series of potential disruptions. A wondrous spin through something akin to the Hatter’s tea party, but what a great time is to be had in this company!

Review
4 Stars
Revenge - a dish best served cold...
The Jewel That Was Ours  - Colin Dexter

Book 9/13 relating the mysterious work of Chief Inspector Morse and his colleague DS Lewis. On this occasion, Oxford and three of the city's copious academics are playing host to a busload of swanky American tourists, billeted in the splendid 5* Randolph Hotel. However, the visit is more significant than belied by the group's local itinerary. One of the tourists is due to donate a jewel encrusted artefact, owned by her late husband that will be rejoined with the famous 'Wolvercote Tongue', housed in the Ashmolean Museum, for the first time in centuries. That is, until the benefactor dies suddenly and the valuable buckle goes missing. Only Morse is keen to delve into the apparent coincidence of a tragic, but natural death and stolen property. When two days later a naked, battered body is fished out of the River Cherwell, it seems Morse may have been right to be sceptical about such apparently random events, but establishing the connections is a complex and daunting puzzle.

 

Intriguingly the famous red MkII Jaguar driven by Morse and emblem of the TV adaption starring John Thaw, in reality gets its first mention in Chapter 18 of the ninth book. Until this point, Morse had driven a rather less iconic and more inconspicuous Lancia. Somehow it felt like it should be a watershed moment, but it is after all, just a set of wheels.

 

Appearing as it does between two CWA Gold Dagger-winning books ('The Wench is Dead', 1989 and 'The Way Through the Woods', 1992), this 1991 novel clearly stemmed from a rich vein of form for Colin Dexter. Certainly, 'The Jewel That was Ours' is a potent blend of intricate plot, imbued with lavishly dramatic characters, inhabiting the complementary elite domains of academics and the wealthy. Both in their turn foster hypocrisy and arrogance, but the reader sits safely in the knowledge that, in time, Morse will expose the pretentious and the guilty. Not that Morse isn't equally endowed with such human frailties, but with Lewis alongside, to keep him honest, the Chief Inspector is able to give full rein to his deductive powers.

 

In another cameo appearance, the pathologist (Max) continues to antagonise Morse, while also denying him any tangible forensic advantage. The gallows humour between them and the exasperation effected by Morse is quite comical and yet they share an undercurrent of mutual respect, which is also quite touching between these heavyweight doyens. 

 

Overall this is one of the more satisfying volumes in the set and the descriptions of parts of Oxford made it all the more compelling.

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Truth has no 'Best Before' date.....
The Wench Is Dead  - Colin Dexter

8/13 of the series of mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and I was looking forward to this book, safe in the knowledge that it had secured for Colin Dexter the CWA Gold Dagger, for 'Best Crime Novel of the Year' (1989). Certainly the storyline was something of a departure, in that Morse deploys his formidable cerebral resources to solve a murder reportedly committed in 1859 and for which two men were hanged. Moreover, for the most part, Morse is hospitalised for treatment of a perforated ulcer and yet, this enables his faculties to be given full rein, albeit he also enlists the help of DS Lewis and a visitor who works at the Bodleian Library to undertake the leg work.

 

The John Radcliffe Hospital proves a fertile territory for Morse to fantasize about the nursing fraternity and flirt with several women ensnared by his blue eyes, though youthful nurses and faltering health do also bring the Chief Inspector uncomfortably before the realization that he is getting older, with a diminishing future.

 

The book is shorter than most in the series, but the pace of the story is well maintained and the crime took place on the Oxford Canal, when narrow-boats remained crucial to the lifeblood of commerce, giving the plot an additional curiosity value.The fact that two boatmen had also been found guilty of the murder of Joanna Franks, an attractive passenger on the Pickford & Co.'s express (or 'fly'), non-stop boat-ride to London and been sentenced to death, while a third was subject to transportation, simply added to a frisson of suspense. As Morse sought to critique the original investigation at a distance of more than 150 years, the reader bears witness to a consummate puzzle-solver, revelling in the mental challenge! This may be the most vulnerable that we have seen Morse so far and yet, in this tale, he is also at his most perceptive and most likable. 

 

 

 

 

Review
4.5 Stars
When the Honeymoon is Over...
On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

I have been an admirer of Ian McEwan's writing style since my introduction to 'Atonement' (see earlier review) and when The Times listed him among "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945", I can plainly see why. By comparison, I was less enamoured by 'Solar' (also previously reviewed), but my latest dip into the McEwan listings, the novella, 'On Chesil Beach', is in many ways a quite remarkable piece of writing. 

 

Firstly, the book, comprising just 166 pages, split into five parts, is exquisitely crafted. The author's use of language is concise, but sumptuous and though short, the book packs a complex emotional punch, which the reader shares with newly weds Edward and Florence. From undiluted joy to excruciating despair, the couple's developing insights are naive and poignant in equal measure and McEwan tackles head-on the nature of intimacy and passion as they nudge towards the consummation of their marriage.

 

For the bulk of the book, the author succeeds in slowing time, launching back from the wedding day in successive reflections that map the couple's respective journeys. Each from very different backgrounds, Edward and Florence have managed to rise above the shortcomings of their parentage and by some quirk of serendipity, to find each other, which is of itself heart-warming. Yet, the book exposes potential flaws in the superficial 1960's courtship ritual and the brittle, untested facade, which they have contrived to create. There is little doubt that they love one another, but is it enough and can they fashion a workable compromise, on which to build a life together?

 

Perhaps some matches are made in heaven, but to succeed they have to be made to work at the human level. In this frank and at times crude exploration of 'need', it seems clear that we can be a fickle bunch, and even among the well-educated, sometimes held hostage to irrational base instincts. 

Review
3 Stars
Persuasive Eyes?
The Secret of Annexe 3  - Colin Dexter

Book 7/13 in the set of Chief Inspector Morse mysteries and for a change just the one murder, a lone victim from a New Year's party at the Howarth Hotel, Oxford, but lots of suspects. And so ensues the weeding out of the guest list, though it is the customary piece of inspired lateral thinking by Morse, which finally initiates a crack in the impenetrable murder investigation.

 

Having loosened a thread, Morse tugs tenaciously on it, slowly unstitching the warp and weft of the bigger picture, to reveal innocuous and criminal secrets. DS Lewis is again called upon to anchor the more whimsical notions of his superior. However, on this occasion, Lewis's role as a 'critical friend' appears to be welcomed by Morse and the heat and light sparked by their abrasive interaction and maturing relationship is accepted as a positive price worth paying.

 

By the high standards set by Colin Dexter this is perhaps the most 'straightforward' case so far. Still, the repeated penchant the author has for seeing Morse propositioned by women, beguiled it seems by exposure to the character's blue eyes and the shortest of police interrogations, remains the most implausible thing in this book, and the series! 

Review
5 Stars
Peasants are the real heroes...
Adam Bede - Hugh Osborne, George Eliot

That's the thing with free 'purchases' on the Kindle isn't it, one wonders 'why'? Is the offering so value-less? Even with the pedigree of George Eliot there is a temptation to look such a gift horse tentatively in the mouth. But, I needn't have worried.

 

Published in 1858, "Adam Bede" was the author's second novel and came more than a decade before "Middlemarch" (see previous review) and yet it turned out to be wonderfully self-assured. Set in Hayslope in Loamshire, which we learn is in the north midlands, the book focuses on a slice of nineteenth century pastoral life, but Eliot's examination of social divisions and connections across class, gender, generations, religion, wealth, etc has some powerful resonance with contemporary Britain. For example, preaching by Christian women (150 years later and still being debated!!); the moral conundrum of support for the poor; teenage pregnancy; gender inequality; and even the responsibility of powerful elites to wider society.

 

As the title of the book suggests, the central character is Adam Bede, who is a master carpenter and curiously in this homage to the humble working man/woman, Eliot offers a compelling antidote to the modern obsession with fame and celebrity. Indeed, the book deliberately lauds several characters of substance and I particularly liked Lisbeth Bede (Adam's doting mother), Dinah Morris (who might equally have been entitled to entitle the book, if you see what I mean) and Mrs Poyser (wife of a local farmer and a complete tartar). Each of them is made all the more praiseworthy in that they must make their respective ways without the advantages conferred by privileged upbringing. Moreover, the characters are buffeted by the twists and turns of life, but it is their capacity to 'do the right thing' in the context of their respective social codes that set them apart. What Eliot seems to be implying is that it can be very difficult to warrant the deceptively simple epithet of a 'good' man/woman and consequently they represent the best of us. Yet, they are "...reared here and there in every generation of our peasant artisans - with an inheritance of affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common industry, and an inheritance of of faculties trained in skilful courageous labour.....They have not had the art of getting rich, but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says, 'Where shall I find their like?' "

This shining of a perceptive light on the value of the industrious working class was rather more interesting to me than tiresome tales of the innately powerful and rightly elevates the author among her Victorian peers.

 

Curiously, at a couple of points in the book, Eliot affects a 'time-out' and proceeds to explain her approach to the story. "So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dread nothing indeed but falsity.... Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult."

This could be perceived as almost an apology for a tale steeped in realism, which might be deemed banal and yet, I found the book thoroughly absorbing. Rather, it was this signposting, explicitly leading the reader to understand an underlying theme and not trusting for it to be gleaned from the narrative that was interesting, but slightly odd.

 

Adam Bede is seen as quite eligible in his community and has set his cap towards local beauty Hetty Sorrel, but she in turn has come to the attention of the heir of the local squire, Captain Arthur Donnithorne. Indeed, the story deftly describes two successive love triangles, with Adam featuring in both, but these are hardly mainstays of the book. Instead, it is the strength of the 'supporting cast' that truly sets this book apart and the meshing of the various cogs in the community machine that mesmerize the reader as smoothly as the engine in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Certainly that compelling desire to know what happens, not only to Adam, but to half a dozen characters, is the hallmark of a great read. And 'love' in its many guises - romantic, familial, communal - triumphs, not in some mushy sentimental way, but as the warm oil that soothes the heat and grinding of components.

 

For me, the only grit in the Eliot machine was the language, which, true to form, was also kept 'real'. That is, the Loamshire dialect was written as pronounced,and slowed my reading until I got the hang of the rhythm. But, even that faint criticism had faded by the end and on reflection was absolutely right for the rural inhabitants and further separated the workers from their (not so much) 'betters'. I don't give out five stars lightly, but then my favourite shelf is fairly sparse too and yet I have placed Adam Bede there with little hesitation. 

Review
3 Stars
Echoes of Holmes and Watson
The Riddle of the Third Mile  - Colin Dexter

6/13 in the series of crime mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and as seems to be Dexter's habit, this book is split into separate parts ('miles' in this case) and though not described as such, Chapter 1 provides a prologue set in El Alamein, 1942. In particular, the narrative introduces the three Gilbert brothers - Alfred and Albert (twins) and their younger sibling, John and a young field officer in the Royal Wiltshires, Lieutenant Browne-Smith. Fast forward to the University of Oxford and Dr Browne-Smith is on a panel of examiners considering the submissions of the academic creme de la creme - the 'greats', but the echo of that distant past will drive a profound sequence of macabre events, which Morse is called upon to unpick.

 

'The Riddle of the Third Mile' is thirty pages shorter than most of the books in this series, but Morse and his trusty sidekick DS Lewis are on good form and through mention of the 'greats', the author gives us some additional insight into the former academic career of the enigmatic Chief Inspector. Morse is now 52, but intriguingly the hallowed halls and the intense love he found there have clearly shaped the man. Indeed, the reader might surmise that lost love and spectre of what might have been perhaps contributed to the gruff shell behind which Morse, in his self-imposed isolation, tends to operate. It is also tempting to speculate on whether Lewis, who endures a torrid relationship with his superior and yet remains endearingly loyal to the 'great' man, in some ways occupies an important space in the emotional vacuum of Morse's life. However, for me, part of the curiosity piqued by Dexter lies in the oblique insights into the unfamiliar elite world of high-end academia. Just as Agatha Christie's Poirot typically plies his detective skills in the upper echelons of the inter-war British class system, so Morse can help the reader navigate the revered institution of which he was once part. The stark contrasts of the public facade, with the soft underbelly of wider society and the seamless way in which Morse traverses the two lends the series a gritty realism and yet remains equally implausible enough to be obvious fiction. Still, the book is enjoyable for all that.

 

The discovery of a headless torso (also minus hands and legs) is unusual, but not gratuitously grotesque. Moreover, as Morse seeks to understand the purpose of such deliberate mutilation, it does provide a vehicle for the resumption of barbed banter with the police pathologist ('Max'), as the body count also mounts further. I think the brilliance of Morse lies in his ability to identify and assemble clues and marshall his thoughts to formulate them into a working hypothesis. The acknowledged value of Lewis lies in  the blunt challenge he poses to his boss's ideas and the debunking of the fanciful, to keep Morse planted on terra firma. They are, it seems, more than the sum of their respective parts, but In the tradition of Holmes and Watson, they are also a compelling double act and much more than an aside to their investigations.

 

 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Spare a thought for poor old Lewis!
The Dead of Jericho  - Colin Dexter

5/13 of the mystery novels by Colin Dexter featuring Chief Inspector Morse and this one, published in 1981, was a worthy winner of the CWA Silver Dagger. The book is split into a prologue, four books and an epilogue, but curiously, Morse doesn't assume the lead of the investigation into the death of a passing female acquaintance until the start of Book 3 and DS Lewis is also belatedly introduced over halfway in. Of course the benefit for Morse is that unfettered by investigative protocols at the outset, he is able to deploy some unconventional tactics and privately question whether the victim had indeed committed suicide. However, we can also see the stabilizing influence of Lewis, keeping his superior grounded and challenging the more fanciful inventions of Morse's prodigious imagination.

 

The crime is set in 'Jericho' which is apparently a former industrial area of Oxford alongside the canal and though the lack of a reliable provenance for the name is intriguing, I enjoyed the map, which enabled the reader to follow the street and landmark references. We also learned that Morse is now fifty years old, so three years have seemingly passed since the previous novel.Still, it is the contrasts, wealth and poverty, culture and depravity, learned and illiterate, attractive and ugly, which again permeate the characters and present a sometimes sordid display of human behaviour. Meanwhile, the enigma that is Morse, a flawed genius subject to the vagaries of imperfect instincts, is exposed just a little more and the longsuffering Lewis has to bite his tongue in the face of tetchy, diva-like tantrums from his volatile boss.

 

The plot is deceptively simple, but the clues are deftly assembled and rearranged as Morse veers off on fruitless tangents, only for his hypotheses to be dismantled and constructed anew in the light of changed evidence. Of course, the quaffing of beer remains central to all the meaningful progress in the case, but it is also in these moments, typically shared by Morse and Lewis, that shine a dull light on the burgeoning intimacy of their relationship, such as when Morse asks his sergeant why he calls him 'sir'.

 

It's interesting that in the TV adaptation, it was hard not to be enthralled by the character played by John Thaw. On the page though, it's equally hard not to find the brilliant Chief Inspector a rather tragic and dislikeable man. Perhaps, It is the presence of Lewis that deliberately keeps Morse honest and anchored among mere mortals, but it is a pretty thankless task!

Review
4 Stars
Morse on his game...
Service of All the Dead  - Colin Dexter

Book 4 of 13 in the list of crime novels involving Chief Inspector Morse and a skilfully constructed murder mystery with an unusually high body count. In this volume, Colin Dexter has rather helpfully separated the book into discrete parts and though I'm not always a fan of this practice, in this instance it works rather well. For example, the first part lays out the interconnections between the key characters, all of whom are linked to the Oxford congregation of St Frideswide's. It means that Morse doesn't put in an appearance until chapter 6 and the good Chief Inspector is supposed to be on leave. Still, we learn some basic detail, such as Morse is aged 47 and still a bachelor, which may explain his consistent hankering for female company, but not so much why an apparently intelligent detective would again fall for a vulnerable perpetrator of crime (though also a victim of her circumstances) in this latest investigation. I fancy today the IPCC would be all over such dubious behaviour!

 

Still, the peeling back of the onion described by Dexter, as Morse dissects the complex layers of this case, is deftly managed. Moreover, the conclusion contained in a witness statement is a clever and innovative way to 'crack the case', as it corroborates Morse's deductions. In a humbling admission, the Chief Inspector acknowledges (though only to himself) that his leaning toward the convoluted can mar his ability to see the plainly obvious. Still, it is his cerebral machinations (and frailties) that keep Morse interesting.

Review
3 Stars
OTT, but Uber Cool!
Iceberg - Clive Cussler

There was a time when Dirk Pitt was one of my favourite fictional heroes and Clive Cussler the master at placing his creation in the most intriguing of plot-lines. Who can forget, "Raise the Titanic" (1976), which brought the world's attention to the 'National Underwater & Marine Agency' (NUMA), led by the phlegmatic Admiral Sandecker and his resourceful, but unruly director of operations. The echoes of James Bond are unmistakable, yet the brand of Dirk Pitt novels has also been synonymous with raucous adventure, just without the accompanying blockbuster movie franchise (a couple of spin-off movies have not remotely done justice to the original Cussler books). Not that comparative failure at the box office should diminish the written word, wherein the author has retained a solid readership.In fact, "Iceberg" (1975) preceded Mr Cussler's seminal novel and clearly Dirk Pitt and his crew received further polish, but the familiar format is established here.

 

Based on an unlikely, though plausibly fascinating premise, Cussler nurtures the reader's curiosity, suspends incredulity and weaves a spectacular tale of against-the-odds triumph of good over evil. The Bond-esque one-liners, the steely-eyed propensity for violence, Pitt's gritty good looks and predictable womanizing gives a rather dated feel to the macho hero. Still, the OTT, unreal nature of the characters and the plot are perhaps just necessary components of the genre's worship of unadulterated escapism. Whatever the flaws, it's a fast-moving yarn that in the past might have been described as 'swashbuckling' and the protagonists get the appropriate comeuppance!

 

Sadly the thrill I experienced following Dirk Pitt as a teenage reader, isn't so vivid today, but perhaps, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, emotional grip is very much in the mind of the reader. Unlike DP, I have got older!

Review
3 Stars
Morse Gets Down and Dirty....
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn  - Colin Dexter

Book 3 of the Dexter 'set' and a brooding Chief Inspector Morse grapples with the murder of a newly appointed member of the Oxford Examination Syndicate. Nicholas Quinn was deaf and though talented, not the unanimous choice of the other 'syndics', to join their studious ranks. Still, Morse needs to tease apart the complex social connections and doggedly unpick the dense layers of motivation and alibi to unmask the culprit.

 

My only criticisms would be the author's penchant for conferring tawdry weakness indiscriminately (all of the key suspects appear to have an appetite for pornography). Dexter commonly challenges the superficial gloss of academia and Oxford, often juxtaposing it with contrastingly brutal and uncivilized aspects of 'real' life. However, the tarring of so many characters with the same feeble brush seemed strikingly implausible. So too, the final gathering of the academics to hear Morse's conclusion. It felt rather reminiscent of Agatha Christie's drawing room finales, but simply not as convincing.

 

I was coming round to the notion that fictional detectives are necessarily a reflection of their environment. But, in that case, Morse might be expected to evince rather more style and class. Certainly, in this book, the depth of the Chief Inspector's intellect is rather betrayed by the shallow nature of his character. Even the long-suffering, up-holder of standards, DS Lewis, seemed to be detrimentally affected, as he went about his gofer duties. Perhaps, Morse will rediscover his love of opera and Wagner, conspicuously absent in this episode and be once more elevated to higher things. One can but hope!

Review
4 Stars
A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle

"A Year in Provence" won the British Book Awards' "Best Travel Book of the Year" in 1989 and without wishing to be disparaging, it is utterly charming! Month-by-month Peter Mayle describes his gradual assimilation into a new life in southern France and though not without challenges, the lifestyle retains enough of an idyllic quality as to be appealing to many a reader.

 

For example, the twelve months begins with a New Year's Eve six course lunch with pink champagne. Typically, Brits have been enviously familiar with the obsession with food, which looms large in French culture, from the virtues of olive oil to the daily purchase of bread - vive la difference!  More recently, of course, we are arguably catching up, but regular references to the importance of food and drink and the superior Gallic appreciation of all things gastronomical, does lend the book a sumptuous feel. Still, this is simply garnish for descriptions of the local characters and landscapes Mayle encounters, which form the main course of his book.

 

Just the idea of a farmhouse with six acres located between the medieval villages of Menerbes and Bonnieux seems exotic, "at the end of a dirt track through cherry trees and vines". And though the author recounts the unexpected difficulties with the climate and getting a series of tradesmen to deliver on the promised renovations, the Spring "evenings of corrugated pink skies..." seem fair compensation for the fact that the swimming pool isn't for all-year-round use!

 

However, for me, the highlight of the book is undoubtedly the rather genteel descriptions of a host of local people, with whom Mayle develops a seemingly genuine affinity and who in turn, appear to accept the Englishman seeking to share in their slice of the 'better life'. Indeed, the incessant visitors from home almost became intruders, inhibiting Mr & Mrs Mayle's desire to luxuriate in their new home and be seamlessly absorbed into the community.

 

The lasting impression is that our neighbour's  grass is inevitably greener, though it wouldn't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea. C'est la vie! 

Review
3 Stars
Morse losing his grip?
Last Seen Wearing  - Colin Dexter

In many ways, I suspect the stuttering advance of Morse towards the solution in this case is far closer to reality than the more common application of fictional detective brilliance. Yet, while the unusual failure of of our hero's usually reliable brainpower is unsettling, in common with DS Lewis, I felt an irritating desire for Morse to 'get a grip'!

 

Of course, for Morse, an investigation badged as a 'missing person' is intrinsically boring. Even more so, since the teenager (Valerie Taylor) had been missing for more than two years and the prospect of tedious routine police work was unappetizing. Throw in the temporary absence of Lewis to illness and we catch sight of an unflattering side of the Chief Inspector, repeatedly flailing around hypotheses that he can't substantiate, without the grounding influence of his DS. Moreover the lewd thoughts of Morse, largely shorn of the civilizing effects of Wagner in this book, seemed a coarser, more shallow mortal. Perhaps this failure to behave as expected , to be 'off his game' and timorous in the face of potential defeat also contributed to an overall sense of disappointment.

 

Though the introduction of a murdered body did briefly suggest that Morse might shift through his mental gears in more familiar fashion, the early languid pace of the investigation was never really overcome. The tawdry nature of the circumstances were perhaps deliberately mundane, rather than sensational, which again contributed to the sense of ordinariness. I wouldn't want to suggest the writing wasn't exceptional, Dexter has a remarkable style, but for my part, I like Morse to be extraordinary, heroically so!

 

This is book two in the set of thirteen, but I am expecting greater things in the remaining novels.

Love in a not so foreign land...
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is a consummate story-teller and following the impact of his first novel - 'The Kite Runner' - his second was always likely to be awaited with bated breath. But, while there are plenty of examples of seminal music albums that have disappointing follow-ups, or movie sequels that never quite reach the highpoint of the original, in this book Hosseini cements his reputation as a genuinely gifted writer.

 

Once again set in Afghanistan, this story focuses on the respective journeys of two women - Mariam and Laila - and the dissection of the book into four parts helpfully describes their individual experiences, before interweaving their lives within the context of war-locked Kabul and a hinterland dominated by armed factions. Seen through the eyes of these women, this book also offers a powerful critique of a social structure, which layers disadvantage based on gender, wealth, religion, tribe, marriage,birth, language, disability, etc. The domestic violence, which they experience at the hands of their husband (Rasheed), is brutal and possible in the absence of protection for the vulnerable and a paternalistic culture which seems to regard women and children as chattels. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the antidote to such systematic hardship proved to be the indomitable human spirit and the innate capacity for reciprocal love.

 

Almost in spite of the dire consequences of the soviet invasion and the transition to the equally destructive Taliban rule and its subsequent demise, the period covered by the book, Hosseini has managed to extricate a wonderfully uplifting tale of love in diverse forms. Positive and negative attachments to parents, the powerful but not universal instinct to protect children, as well as the strength of selfless romantic love, as distinct from pragmatic survival mechanisms, conjures up some challenging moral dilemmas for the reader. Moreover, the sisterly bonding of Mariam and Laila in an unspoken connection of damaged souls is arguably the most touching of all.

 

Amid the physical war damage and emotional carnage, the author nonetheless manages to eke out a testament to human resilience and deep-rooted optimism. However, it is the strength and resolve of the central female characters that offer most pride in the human virtues on show. My favourite quote from the book follows the mourning of Laila's brothers, when the character perceives a hierarchy in her mother's affections, "....Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed.Swelled and crashed." In the final analysis, Laila's courage was every bit as worthy of her mother's reverence.

 

On reflection, I believe one of the most engaging factors for the reader steeped in western culture is the apparent difference in certain values, most notably in respect of women (though notably feminists would argue there is still a way to go), but also, reassuringly, common humane principles that derive from the respective civilizations. The 'otherness' is a seductive curiosity, however, it should not be overstated, for as Hosseini demonstrates, our aspirations are remarkably similar.