Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale: Book review

Drink with this:


Delectable combination of beer mixed with ginger beer. Slight alcoholic buzz but can still be classed as a drink fit for a child if diluted enough. Fizzy bubbly excitement from the ginger beer suitable for ups and downs of this fairly sedate thriller. Pleasant and drinkable and evocative of afternoons in the beer garden.

What’s what

Sometimes I feel that the sum result of four years of an English degree, encompassing countless classic works of literature and literary criticism dating back to the 13th Century, has boiled down to a fondness for the Victorians, and the melodramatic, convoluted literature they wrote, which I just can’t shake. The thought that I’m never going to be able to read Vanity Fair, Middlemarch or Bleak House again for the first time ever pains me in the way I imagine normal people feel about memories of their first kiss or first taste of a perfectly balanced mojito.

Montmorency - Thief, Liar, Gentleman? is Victorian Lit Lite. I didn’t realise it was a young adult novel until I’d already started reading, and then just succumbed to the undemanding and enjoyable story. Montmorency is a thief who suffered devastating injuries while in the midst of his last job. Recovering in the prison hospital, he formulates a cunning plan to use the newly constructed London sewer system as a conduit for burglaries of London’s great, good, and loaded.

Of necessity he creates a dual identity - Scarper does the dirty work and poses as his manservant while he is Montmorency, the gentleman who lives a life of luxury made possible by ill-gotten gains. These distinct personalities are one of the most interesting parts of the book, especially as the story goes on and our protagonist identifies ever more with his Montmorency side and feels growing distaste for Scarper. Sure, it is just Jekyll and Hyde but lacking any psychological depth whatsoever; but there is a still a voyeuristic pleasure to be had in reading the about the conflicts between these contrasting halves of the same life.

In the pub, Scarper had briefly toyed with the notion of putting a permanent end to the risk by killing Mr. Rigby, but back in the Marimion, Montmorency knew that such behavior was out of the question, and he despised Scarper for even entertaining the idea.

Updale’s writing is amusing and witty and her plot bounds along at a brisk pace. There are some moments which stretch the bounds of credibility, but nothing which disrupts the pleasure of the story. Montmorency is a rather gentle and endearing character, who develops convincingly as the book progresses. If anything I’d have liked a bit more backstory for him and a bit more grit to his amoral edges but then it’s a sad truth that young adult novels tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to their anti-heroes’ bad boy ways.

Scarper didn’t ask questions. He didn’t want them asking questions of him. But he fancied having a look at what went on when glitter briefly overlaid the filth.

Perhaps the hardest part of the story to believe was Montmorency’s fairly speedy transformation into a gentleman and his relatively easy entree into the world of aristocratic London. Anyone familiar with the trials and tribulations of Becky Sharp knows that ascent to the top of the ton depended on more than a charming smile and the right evening clothes. It would have been fun to see the fictionalised world of the upper classes depicted in a bit more detail but there are plenty of other young adult historical novels I can go to for that, although those are sadly lacking in sewers.

“Smokes,” as Montmorency guessed, turned out to be the smoking room. Later, he was to discover the dining rooms: “Big Eats” (referred to by the more boyish members as “Eats Major”) and “Little Eats” (“Eats Minor”). There were also bars: “Big Drinks” and “Little Drinks” (each with its Latin tag: “Drinks Major,” “Drinks Minor”); “Private Drinks” (also known as “Plotters”); a library (“Swotters”); and a terrace (“The Parade”) leading to a small garden (“Outers”). The washrooms and lavatories were “Wetties” and “Ploppers,” respectively.

That’s probably why Victorian lit lite hasn’t really caught on as a genre. Novels of the Victorian age revelled in details and pompous descriptive writing. Updale sacrifices this for a lighter story and quicker pacing suitable for her younger audience.


Delightful romp through the sewers of Victorian London.

On the big screen

This is calling out to be made into a British children’s film. Stephen Fry as Lord Fox-Selwyn! I am seriously considering contacting Eleanor Updale with regards to this possibility. All interested parties get in touch!


A dumbed-down Oliver Twist; a more intellectual take on Alex Rider.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: Book review

To drink with this


The manliest of cocktails. Picture Don Draper sipping alone in a darkened office, drowning his angst and alienation. The first documented definition of the word ‘cocktail’ listed the constituent ingredients of the old-fashioned, making it the quintessential American cocktail. Harsh whiskey and bitters, alleviated by sugar and a zesty citrus twist. Drink a few and drown the pain.

What’s what

Sherwood Anderson, according to wikipedia, was influential in the success of both Faulkner and Hemingway. Despite his unlikely name, he seems to have since faded from popular awareness. (Or so I assume - maybe this is a signifier of my benighted cultural awareness and you are sitting clucking at your laptop in disbelief, while caressing your much-loved tattered paperback version of Winesburg, Ohio.)

Reviews I have read of the book have described it as a volume of short stories, albeit interconnected by their setting in the small town of Winesburg. I don’t feel that this accurately sums up the novel though - each chapter may focus on a different character and encompass one particular event, yet characters from earlier stories pop up again and not just the town they share but the overarching themes are consistent across all the stories.

Look, if you insist on uplifting or feel-good reading material you won’t appreciate this. Personally I didn’t find this a particularly depressing book, but then I often think that early exposure to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and the Gormenghast trilogy has now inured me against literary sadness. Not to mention His Dark Materials - what in life or in books can compare to the separation of Will and Lyra? Worlds apart forever, people - what is an unhappy marriage when compared to that?! Sherwood, write something that makes me cry non-stop for three days and then we’ll talk about what’s depressing.

The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth. Pg 18

Anderson is simply a beautiful writer, and Winesburg was ridiculously quotable. These vignettes of small town life were quite racy when published in 1919 and still feel quite unusual in that there is little plot aside from the day to day events in the lives or ordinary people.

In the presence of George Williard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. Pg 4

The banal is juxtaposed with massive and overwhelming emotions. Anderson details the longing for expression, connection and understanding within all his characters. Each of his characters feel profoundly isolated and alienated from the town they live in and those around them. They all long to be understood and struggle with desires which they cannot even fully articulate to themselves, let alone work out how to achieve.

It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others. She became obsessed with the thought that it wanted but a courageous act on her part to make all of her association with people something quite different, and that it was possible by such an act to pass into a new life as one opens a door and goes into a room. Pg 40

The narrator addresses the reader directly throughout, and despite the flat and laconic tone adopted the overall effect is of gentle melancholy.

Most boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives. But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with Ray Pearson. It is Ray’s story. It will, however, be necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you will get into the spirit of it. Pg 104

This philosophical and finely drawn sense of sadness pervades every chapter of the novel and somehow makes the detailed and often absurd character portraits even more poignant. Anderson is quoted in the introduction saying that he modelled his characters on people from his hometown, and the people of his novel all feel vivid and realistic. Anderson describes their inner tragedies dispassionately yet the reader can’t help but identify with his ordinary characters consumed by extraordinary feelings.

The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. Pg 121


Deserves to be rescued from obscurity and lauded for its searing and beautifully written portrait of early twentieth century small town USA.

“I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in 56

On the big screen

These guys have done it already:

I think I would go for a different approach. A series of hour long episodes for TV, each featuring one of the novel’s stories would in my opinion represent this sprawling and considered text better than a film could.


Eminently readable but with the literary cachet of Faulkner and Hemingway.

There was nothing particularly striking about them except that they were artists of the kind that talk. Everyone knows of the talking artists. Throughout all of the known history of the world they have gathered in rooms and talked. They talk of art and are passionately, almost feverishly, in earnest about it. They think it matters much more than it does. Pg 84

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie: Book review

Drink with this

Supermarket cabernet sauvignon

Red wine feels suitable for a night time tale of murder. This book does not warrant an expensive vintage but a cosy bottle of a cheap brand will be an appropriate accompaniment. Drink fast enough and that vinegary taste will all but disappear.

What’s what

As far as I’m concerned, books under 400 pages are a waste of time. Why bother growing attached to a beautifully developed world and characters you prefer to your actual friends and family when there is an abrupt end fast approaching? My ideal book would be the size of several bricks heaped together, or part of a series with at least three parts already published. I still think longingly of the days I had all 21 Master and Commander books lying in wait in my future.

I can’t remember how I came across Deborah Crombie - I believe that her latest novel had just come out and I discovered it was part of a detective series with a miraculous fifteen parts already published. As somebody who lies awake worrying about the day when I will finish reading all the awesome books published so far throughout history and have to read less awesome books or sit staring at my kindle, waiting for new ones to be published, this was a great boon.

Crombie’s writing has more in common with Agatha Christie murder mysteries than with most contemporary detective stories. The modern mystery-thriller is firmly grounded in the psychology of crime, and tends to focus less on whodunnit than why. Jo Nesbo, Tana French, Gillian Flynn and Sophie Hannah’s fiction all adhere to these tenets - exploring the minds of their criminals as their detectives attempt to decode the crimes. Crombie in this first book in her series seems disinterested in investigating the interior lives of any of her characters overmuch - their actions often are left without plausible explanation, or with lightly sketched motivation.

Her model is classic Christie in many ways - the characters, including Detective Duncan Kincaid, her hero, are all brought together prior to the murder and conveniently stuck together while he investigates at his own, fairly relaxed pace. There are titillating secrets revealed along the way, copious red herrings, attractive women put in danger and creepy ex-army personnel.

The lights glowed softly in the windows of Followdale House, as welcoming as death. Pg 67

This was a comfortable and narratively satisfying read, if rather lacking in depth. There is something quite naive about the story - the motive is rather old-fashioned and main characters Gemma and Duncan have none of the tortured complexity of a Harry Hole. I wonder how much Crombie’s approach has to do with the fact that she is an American writing about British life. In parts this did feel like a performance of some essential idea about the cosy English mystery mystery - Midsomer Murders in novel form.

There are a few predictable twists although I didn’t work out the murderer ahead of the Big Reveal. Perhaps in part because I was happy enough just to let the story wash over me; perhaps because it wasn’t really designed for the reader to work out ahead of time. Crombie’s detectives spend most of the novel quite perplexed and seem to have little thought-process for the reader to follow, or even inscrutable musings in the way of Holmes to indicate some internal deduction at work.

They smiled at each other companionably. “Better luck next time?” Gemma suggested. Kincaid raised his glass. “Cheers.” Pg 260

However, there are hints that things might get a bit more exciting as the series progresses and I will be coming back for more. If nothing else I want to work out Crombie’s schtick - most crime writers seem to have themes or tropes which recur compulsively throughout their work and this first instalment interested me enough to want to know what hers are.


On the cover above, esteemed publication the ‘Houston Chronicle’ damns with faint praise by describing A Share in Death as ‘A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment.’ Far be it from me on disagree.

On the small screen

Not enough meat here yet for a tv series - the blood and sexual tension would need to be upped lest it be relegated to the depths of ITV3.


I don’t think genre fiction should automatically be considered lowbrow; but as detective fiction goes this is not particularly sophisticated.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Casson Family series by Hilary McKay:Book review

To drink with this

Hot chocolate with marshmallows

Comforting, sweet and reminiscent of childhood. Nuff said.

What’s what

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book'.” Martin Amis

I would like to respectfully disagree with Martin Amis. There should be no shame in writing or reading books aimed for children, the best of these being just as thought-provoking and meaningful and enjoyable as anything you will get from Booker prize winning literature. A children’s writer must anyway aim their novel at children of varying ages, of varying levels of comprehension, and the most accomplished design books which have layers of meaning which will be appreciated more by older readers. I probably have my dad to thank for all the amazing books written for children which I have read since entering adulthood. I passed all my library books on to him after I finished them, and he read Alex Rider, Sweet Valley High et al and discussed them with me as seriously as if they were the Dickens novels I moved on to eventually.

I loved Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series when I was growing up, but the Casson family series was after my time - the first was published in 2001, by which time the Dickens’ years had begun. The series focuses on an eccentric dysfunctional-yet-really-pretty-wonderful sprawling family living in modern-day England. There are four children with strong and distinct personalities, two well-meaning but mostly absent parents, and assorted friends such as Derek-from-the-camp, and Michael the driving instructor.

Indigo explained to him that in England summer was when you carried your coat around instead of wearing it. Only for a few reckless days in August, said Indigo, could it be safely left at home. Indigo's Star, pg 203

The first three books in the series (Whitbread award-winning Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose) are near perfect. The plot is minimal but the characters are wonderfully realised and I gobbled these books up at the rate of one a day during a stressful week at work. Having the Cassons to come home to felt like immersive yet mild and cuddly therapy.

Eve looked at Rose, and she did not laugh. She understood about hearts, even if she did not understand about money. She put an arm round Rose and hugged her tight. Indigo's Star, pg 144

The small details here are the ones which make this such a vivid world to drop into; Eve, the mother, swigs a mixture of instant coffee and coca cola to keep her going while working on her paintings in the shed at the bottom of the garden; nobody ever cooks except Indigo, who dreams up delights like grilled cheese on top of curry; there are several generations of guinea pigs running loose through the house and garden.

McKay’s writing is full of wry, warm humour and flawed but lovable characters. She deals with serious issues without easy resolution or resort to cheap moralising or oversimplification. Dad Bill moves out to live with a girlfriend for a while; Saffy is adopted and struggles with her place in the family; Indigo is bullied at school. None of these events dominate the plot but are all just part of the overall picture of family life.

He had drifted away from them all into another life, with hardly a backward glance. Still, he had come home when she asked him to and he had bought Tom the black guitar. He was good and he was bad. Indigo's Star, pg 254

Caddy Ever After and Forever Rose don’t quite meet the incandescent pitch of the first two books in the series. The point of view shift from third to first person and the increased focus on Rose bring a feel of scattiness and a shortage of detail. These are minor points however, and the series comes to a satisfying end.

There is a nostalgic sense to McKay’s writing which I can’t quite pinpoint. Maybe it’s the non-attention of the parents, so essential in YA literature, or the big messy squabbly family. The series doesn’t feel quite contemporary despite being written within the last few years. This is Enid Blyton meets Jacqueline Wilson, without the fussiness of the first or the brash and often quite bleak take on modern life of the second. Whatever McKay’s magic formula, this series was a lot better than most books by non-brain injured writers I’ve read this year.


If I knew any nine year old girls I would impose this on them straight away, in between their mandatory Buffy viewings.

On the small screen

I’d like to imagine this as a children’s tv show, but I don’t think this type of programme is in vogue. Even when I was a teenager this would have felt old-fashioned.

Rose did not say any more, but she and Indigo stayed out for a long, long time, wishing, and watching the stars, the steady ones and the ones that passed with red and green lights across the sky. Indigo’s Star pg 266


Let’s all choose to ignore Martin Amis. Hilary McKay’s fiction is damn good

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray: Book review

Drink with this


“Whose whiskey? Don’t get some coffin varnish off someone you don’t know and put us both in the morgue.” It was a fact that disreputable bootleggers sometimes mixed the booze with kerosene or gasoline. Pg 74

Has to be swigged from a hip-flask, and has to taste raw and brutally strong. To recreate the effectin modern day UK, I recommend buying Tesco-own brand vodka - the kind without a proper label which costs about £4.95 a litre. Sure, it will burn the skin off the back of your throat and leave you retching in a plant-pot, but anything for authenticity, right? Being well and truly trashed will help you get through Bray’s 600 pages as well. I predict that the most bizarre plot shifts and narrative reversals will all fall into place. Or if not, you’ll be so ill literature will be the last thing on your mind.

What’s what

This is where I prove myself a literary dunce. Libba Bray’s latest young adult novel has won several awards, and is a bestseller which by all accounts lots of sensible people enjoyed very much. I did not.

It wasn’t awful, but it was disappointing. I really really want to rate Bray, but this is the second book of hers (Beauty Queens the first) which I’ve found a letdown. The premise is very exciting; (assuming you get excited by not just reading books but reading about books you may or may not later read) it’s set in 1920s New York, where main character Evie finds herself sent to stay with her Uncle Will. Will is a bit of an expert on the occult, which is convenient as Evie and several other characters in the novel turn out to have emerging supernatural powers. The main thrust of the story features Evie and Will and their hangers-on investigating a series of murders in New York.

Bray in this novel is quite obviously trying to write The Great American Novel - for Teenagers. I wish she wasn’t trying quite so hard to please everyone at once - her method seems to be to bundle historical fiction, romance, murder mystery and supernatural horror together and hope it forms an epic, sweeping whole. The effect is reminiscent of Gone with the Wind with an extra zombie subplot thrown in. (Note to self: brilliant idea, begin writing immediately.) There is simply too much going on, and the plots and subplots here could easily have been split up into two or three normal books. Diviners also happens to be book one in a series, and I felt the writer spent too much time setting up future storylines and characters to the detriment of what was actually going on in this novel as a standalone piece of writing. This was not tight or coherent but bloated and in dire need of editing, with entire subplots and characters who I could have quite happily seen swept away by a supernatural typhoon over Manhattan. (This may in fact have been an actual plot point in the novel - too hard to keep track.)

Daisy’s mouth hung open in outrage. “Well, I never!” “Yeah, that’s what you tell all your fellas, but the rest of us aren’t buying it.” Pg 136

I loved the period setting, which was evoked very well through use of vivid details and lots (and lots) of period-appropriate slang. At times this did get a bit wearing, and interrupted the pacing of the novel, but I’ve never read historical fiction aimed at teenagers which felt so realistic. In fact, the only adult historical fiction which I’ve read which inhabited its chosen time period so completely was Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning Wolf Hall. Bray’s dialogue, peppered with ‘pos-it-tutely’s and ‘and how’s may have been a bit over-the-top, but it was snappy and witty and for me that counts for a lot more. (Juno, anyone?)

Will lectured about belief in the supernatural, but the only ghosts that frightened Evie were the very real ghosts inside her. Some mornings, she’d wake and vow, Today, I will get it right. I won’t be such an awful mess of a girl. pg 288

Evie herself was probably what kept me going throughout the hard times I had with this book, when I didn’t think I could take another abstract description of evil in the cornfields. She was a selfish, extroverted bitch who just wanted to be famous and go out and get pissed, and was so much more fun to read for it.

Her relationships with the other characters in the novel rang true and were enjoyable to read. That said, I was not sold on the romance at all, and hated the steampunk plot twist thrown in with it. Considering that steampunk itself is a questionable case of genre fusion, I thought this was a baffling choice in a novel which already had enough going on.

The sun cleared the horizon. The light stung her eyes. “Kiss me,” Evie said. He took her face in his hands and his kiss blotted out the sky. Pg 578

The murder mystery/horror element of the novel worked and was convincingly creepy most of the time, although it felt a bit cliched to me - hasn’t the idea of human sacrifice as part of some perverted religious quest been done a million times in crime fiction? I feel as I’ve spent way too much of my life reading about Biblical quotes being seared into human flesh and bloodstained mystical symbols appearing on walls. Additionally, so much time was spent on this part of the plot and so little on the characters’ supernatural powers. It was intensely frustrating and I would have liked to have seen this explored further. For example, why are all the teenagers Evie knows gifted with extrasensory powers? This is convenient coincidence which made no sense at all.

She was tired of being told how it was by this generation, who’d botched things so badly. They’d sold their children a pack of lies: God and country. Love your parents. All is fair. And then they’d sent those boys, her brother, off to fight a great monster of a war that maimed and killed and destroyed whatever was inside them. Still they lied, expecting her to mouth the words and play along. Well, she wouldn’t. She knew now that the world was a long way from fair. She knew the monsters were real. PG 554

This is a book which is trying to be more than the sum of its parts. It is steeped in mysticism and history, bound together by grandiose prose. These supposedly epic themes and the overwrought writing did not cohere for me. Maybe at the end of her series Bray will have succeeded in her endeavour, but as a book to be evaluated on its own merits, The Diviners does not satisfy.


I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. And that is not the reaction you want to have at the end of 600 pages.

On the small screen

This would definitely work as a TV series. The interesting period setting, the characters who are ever so slightly caricatures, and the shifting narrative point of view are all TV gold. Heroes meets Boardwalk Empire? However I’m not sure if America is ready for the villain of this piece, a devout though dead Christian gone off the rails both morally and metaphysically….


It’s won plenty of awards and for young adult fiction it certainly packs on the weighty themes. This is a book which definitely aspires to be Highbrow. However its ideas are not new and I don’t thin

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Book Review

Drink with this

Vermuth de grifo

Vermouth did not originate in Barcelona, but has become a bit of a staple of the city’s bars. It’s served from the tap like beer, and each bar has its own version so you never know quite what to expect. Imagine yourself in a seedy bar down a little winding alley drinking a glass of dry vermouth. Wine macerated with herbs, it sounds vaguely witchy and tastes slightly medicinal. Menacing characters drinking straight from dusty bottles sit in the shadowy corners of the bar. They do not try to hide the fact they are openly staring at you. You choke slightly on your vermouth, its taste growing ever more acidic and unpleasant. You hastily leave, glad you have spent only a drink’s worth of time on this experience rather than the time it might to take to, for example, READ A 600 PAGE NOVEL.

What’s what

I feel tricked by this book. I had a vague idea, which in retrospect evolved from nowhere I can easily identify, that it was Proper Literature. Perhaps it was a combination of the whopping success of its companion book - Shadow of the Wind - the ethereal pastels of the cover and the fact that it was a translation. Also, most of the books I read feature vampires, spies, or teenage vampire spies battling to survive in a dystopian America ruled by evil robotic overlords. This seemed so much more grown-up I think I forgot that it still might be…crap.

By the end of the novel I would have a relished a good teenage werewolf story, and found the love triangle between the werewolf, mermaid and robot overlord a great deal more realistic than the actual plot of The Angel’s Game. Anyway, here’s the premise: David is a troubled writer of trashy pulp crime fiction living in Barcelona in the early part of the 20th C. He makes a deal with a mysterious publisher who is not what he seems.

Grandes went over to the window and gazed at the view of the city, a fantasy of lights and mist, cathedrals and palaces, alleyways and wide avenues woven into a labyrinth of shadows. ‘The city of the damned,’ said Grandes. ‘The further away you are, the prettier it looks.’ Pg 509

This is not a short book people. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so cheated if I hadn’t read and enjoyed the first three hundred pages, only for them to be followed by three hundred pages of utter rubbish. Everything enjoyable that Zafon had worked to develop in the first half of the book, he then proceeded to trash in the second. If I knew more about football this is where I would say something like “it was a book of two halves” except funnier because I would actually understand that phrase in context instead of something that wee Scottish guy off the radio intoned every Saturday afternoon of my childhood.

The prose admittedly was fabulous - lyrical and sinister, and evocative of dark winding alleys and haunted corners of Barcelona. The book, much like its predecessor, is a paean to reading and writing, and any book lover will enjoy those parts. I also really liked the main character David both, when he was a young, naive wannabe writer and when he was a cynical, disillusioned and lonely man. H e had some great snappy dialogue with Isabella, the only other worthwhile character.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price. Pg 3

So what went wrong? I blame the evil of magic realism. The first part of the book reads as a straightforward narrative, realistic if a bit far-fetched at times. The second part is a cryptic puzzle where the reader is forced to wonder confusedly what is happening, who is dead, who exists, and what is mere delusion. By the end I simply did not care. Magic realism is not wrong per se I suppose, but when it’s done badly it seems as if it’s there just as an excuse for the writer to dispense with plot, narrative, and consistent characterization.

‘He said he’d handed his life over to a shadow.’ ‘A shadow?’ ‘Those were his words. A shadow who followed him and possessed the same shape, face and voice as his own.’ ‘What did that mean?’ ‘Guilt and remorse have no meaning. They are feelings, emotions, not ideas.’ It occurred to me that not even the boss could have explained this more clearly. Pg 467

The book was also damaged but an abrupt shift in writing style from slow menacing build-up of suspense to melodramatic and choppy action, which should have been exciting but was in fact utterly boring due to the fact that every single interesting character was dead or crazy or possibly not real. The love interest, whom David spent the majority of the book moping over, was completely devoid of any sort of personality. Her only notable attributes were her beauty and her unattainability. Eventually she dies (SPOILER) and I was glad, although it took another hundred pages for me to be sure that she had in fact died and that scene hadn’t been a dream. But then the book screwed me over with its epilogue. My fury was intensified to a state of burning rage by this cheesy and baffling chapter, which could have been a scene from the outtakes of my most loathed film, the horrifying Benjamin Button. The memory of Brad Pitt’s hotness DESTROYED by this heinously creepy movie was too much, and I turned the last page in angry tears of pure hate.

One of David’s pulp crime novels would have been infinitely more enjoyable than Zafon’s book. Lovely prose and a good few hundred pages can’t compensate for the wreck the story becomes.


Read a nice dystopian young adult novel instead - there are plenty to choose from, they’re all pretty fun, and you’ll save a good few hours of your life which you can never, ever get back.

On the big screen

The plot would only become more convoluted and hard to follow when translated to cinema, and its all too easy to imagine the melancholy atmosphere and sense of poetic doom being leached out of it.


Distinctly middle of the road. The Alchemist meets 100 Years of Solitude meets The Da Vinci Code and together they create a monstrosity.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey: Book review

Drink with this

Tequila sunrise

This may seem an odd choice of drink to partner a book about a relatively obscure branch of science. But as with genetic diversity, there are (almost) infinite variations on this seemingly straightforward classic. Southern Sunrise, Caribbean Sunrise, Tequila Sunset… Epigenetics is a new take on Darwin’s theories of evolution just as the tequila sunrise has contenders coming along to embellish on the original. This cocktail has distinct and discrete layers which slowly interact over time, a fitting metaphor for the interaction between genetics and the environment.

What’s what

For many years I have harboured a secret conviction that if not for doing an arts degree I would now be a successful and probably quite famous geneticist. My understanding of what this would involve on a day to day basis is limited, but I have always liked biology and I have a vague but blissful picture in my head of lots of research and no people at all. Just their cells, presumably.

A few months ago I suffered from a particularly desperate bout of career-induced panic, and resolved to jack in my media job to become a government advisor on the likelhood of a zombie plague. (This exists! I swear. (See last week’s review of Journal of the Plague Year for more on my morbid fascination with infectious illness.) 

I formulated a two-pronged plan, which conveniently glossed over such minor niggles as my lack of any sort of maths or chemistry qualifications obtained past the point when these subjects involved more than the odd quadratic equation and supervised play with a Bunsen burner. The first stage was to text my youngest sister, who has an actual real science degree and proper lab experience, to ask how one would go about becoming an epidemiologist. (What’s that?? She replied). The second prong of my devastatingly effectual life plan was to play to my existing talents, and read a few vaguely science-related texts. Which brings us to today’s review, after just two paragraphs of circumlocution and three sets of brackets!

Epigenetics is the study of gene expression. While an individual’s DNA remains constant from conception to death, certain genes function in different ways depending on their surrounding environment. Basically there are lots of add-ons on the genome, piggybacking genetic triggers which can cause the genes underneath to behave differently. This is important stuff - epigenetics has potential to change the way we treat inherited disease, obesity, cancer, and mental illness.

“Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, this is called epigenetics. When a change in environment has biological consequences that last long after the event itself has vanished into distant memory, we are seeing an epigenetic effect in action.” Loc 151

Carey’s writing style was engaging and intelligent, most of the time. After reading the introduction I was a bit sneery, and felt that this book would be a bit juvenile for someone as expert as me. I had read the wikipedia page on epigenetics already you see. But it turned out Carey was just warming up! The book turned out to be pretty balanced on the whole. The start and end of every chapter were full of nice, easy to grasp explanations and examples, while the middles delved into the murky depths of chemical symbols and diagrams. I made sure to pick up on the terms being bandied about, so I can shout them out while watching University Challenge, so I know that ‘histone modification’ and ‘dna methylation’ are absolutely key. Beyond that I am a bit unsure - I have no shame in admitting I skimmed some of the denser pages. Hey, I did the same with all the War chapters of War and Peace and so far nobody has ever called me on it. *

There were plenty of examples given throughout of epigenetics at work, most of which related to genetically identical mice which had been studied in laboratories. I would have enjoyed more real world examples but it is inevitable that this were lacking as this is such a new area of research. Bonus points for the fact that one real world example involved Audrey Hepburn, and the genetic impact on her caused by the Dutch Hunger Winter.

Carey is a very careful writer and avoids rampant speculation. Nevertheless the book contained some genuinely fascinating and surprising revelations. For example, even genetically identical twins are epigenetically different, as their epigenetic profiles start to diverge while they are still foetuses, and then diverge further throughout their lives.

“Since epigenetic modifications don’t change what a gene codes for, what do they do? Basically, they can dramatically change how well a gene is expressed, or if it is expressed at all. Epigenetic modifications can also be passed on when a cell divides, so this provides a mechanism for how control of gene expression stays consistent from mother cell to daughter cell.” Loc 891

I found Carey’s effusive praise for the work of particular scientists quite odd - is this the done thing? I’m not sure I care about her speculations on who will win the next Nobel prize, and which scientist cuts a more dashing profile on campus. Her attempts to be funny were slightly more endearing but just as bizarre: ‘Shakespeare’s script’ for Romeo and Juliet being photocopied with Baz Luhrmann’s notes on it as an analogy for the epigenetic regulation of gene expression is a key example. But who knows, maybe Carey is a geneticist who has always dreamed of being a writer - in which case brava to her.

*Not sure who would but I live in fear of that mystery Literary Arbitrator anyway


A fascinating read. Accessible but also educational! What more could you want from non-fiction?

On the small screen

There is definite material for a Horizon special episode here! Who wants to help me pitch it to the BBC?


Any book with this many diagrams and anagrams has to be considered highbrow.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson: Book review

What to drink

Strawberry velvet cocktail

Not an authentic cocktail as such, I envisage this as a mix of strawberry puree, vanilla ice cream and chambord, with a shot of vodka. Fittingly, this would be a crimson cocktail - the colour of blood and our heroine’s hair. Creamy and luxurious, this drink seems sweet at first but leaves a cloying taste in the mouth and sits like a lead weight in the stomach.

What’s what

Strands of Bronze and Gold is a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale. As fairytales go, it’s not one I’m intimately familiar with, aside from the recollection that Bluebeard was a murderous lunatic who massacred all his previous wives. In fact this turns out to be the gist of both the fairytale and the book - but the book somehow manages to not quite do this meagre source material justice.

It got off to a good start - our main character Sophie was sufficiently spunky and original, with an amusing inner monologue. The book is set in the antebellum South, a setting which works to create the overall disquieting atmosphere of gothic dread.

Perhaps the first few chapters are a bit slow, but they are entertaining in a voyeuristic way, as like Sophie we are drawn into the luxurious world of her godfather Bernard. Thankfully Sophie realises fairly early on that Bernard is an unappealing perv so we aren’t subjected to too much Fifty Shades of Grey style drooling on her part. The air of menace is built up fairly well, and suspense develops from the genuine unpredictability of Bernard’s actions and Sophie’s scheming to placate him.

"Thinking like him was impossible. He was mad. His madness encompassed a terrible selfishness with neither compassion nor empathy, a terrible anger, a terrible possessiveness and a terrible lust for blood." Pg 318

Unfortunately Strands… is not without its problems. A subplot focussing on slavery and the Underground Railway fizzles out narratively and raises some questions surrounding the book’s treatment of race. None of the black characters in the novel are fully fleshed out, existing only as devices to assist the characterisation of Bernard and Sophie. We know Bernard is Bad because he beats the slaves. We know Sophie is Good because she feels pity for the slaves. The slaves themselves, the Abolitionist movement, and the full horrors of the institution of slavery are not developed beyond this limited use.

All of the novel’s characters except for its heroine and villain are in fact subject to this flat ineffectual realisation. Ok, yes - the story is about the suffocating and abusive relationship between Bernard and Sophie but I think this would have been highlighted even more if we had a sense of the world and the people she was being cut off from. It is hard to understand the sacrifice she makes in agreeing to marry Bernard for the sake of her family as to the reader they are little more than ciphers, and unsympathetic ciphers at that. Gideon, her alternative love interest, is engaging enough at first - but again it’s hard to emphasize when these two fall in ‘love’ seemingly overnight.

The second half of the book does not work at all - there are big issues with the pacing here. As with so much horror writing there is a swift descent into the macabre which quickly becomes ridiculous and so not in the least frightening. The paranormal elements of the novel worked as vague suggestions but are overdone and unnecessary towards the end. And this is where the book could really have done with sticking more to its source material. On re-reading Bluebeard on wikipedia, it’s really fucking gruesome! Where are the pools of bloods and hooks on the walls? Or at least tell-tale stained keys and morbid curiosity? Some of the more interesting elements of the original story seem to have been jettisoned and sadly the padding Nickerson added to her take on the tale was little compensation.


Doesn’t live up to its initial promise. Fairytale retellings have to justify the extra pages they add to the Grimm Brothers’ originals versions and this did not.

On the big screen

I don’t see this working except as a low-budget late-night horror flick. The storyline is too predictable and devoid of surprises for even the likes of a channel five made for tv movie, and Sophie’s witty inner monologue would no doubt be lost behind a pretty, insipid face.


Great literature this ain’t, although bonus literary points for folk roots? I feel as if beneath the romance trappings and silly ending there is a great masterpiece waiting to be written based on the Bluebeard fairytale… or maybe not.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe: Book review

Drink with this

Bloody Beer

Bloody Mary was the obvious choice of cocktail for a book which delights in dwelling on the screaming agonies of Londoners infected with the Black Death. Bloody Beer, a variation which substitutes vodka for light beer, is more appropriate given the gallons of ale guzzled by the denizens of London throughout their times of hardship. Bloody Beer is also commonly served with a ‘beef straw’ which sounds more like a 17th C pub nibble than a cocktail ingredient of today. The typical Bloody Beer adornment of Worcestershire sauce is satisfyingly English, while its black pepper and hot sauce are in keeping with the pungent remedies resorted to in vain attempts to stave off death.

What’s what

I discovered this book - to give it its proper name, A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London - by way of an insalubrious Goodreads search for plague novels. Sometimes I feel as if The Stand has spoiled me for every other plague book out there - a sad realisation as my interest in infectious diseases has only burgeoned in the years since reading King’s masterwork.

Anyway I knew I had to have this Defoe as soon as I learned of its existence. Its not often I find a book which allows me to pretend to be intellectual whilst indulging my dirty literary cravings.

For a 17th C text this was surprisingly readable. I learned afterwards that it was an attempt by Defoe at historical fiction, and that the narrator is not actually meant to be Defoe himself but some anonymous third person. On these terms the book does not work at all. It is not a journal as we understand it today and doesn’t really have a narrative either.

“therefore I desire this account may pass with them rather for a direction to themselves to act by than a history of my actings, seeing it may not he of one farthing value to them to note what became of me.” Pg 5

However as a sort of unstructured collection of musings, speculation and facts on the infection in London in 1665 it’s worth a look. It’s written more like a report or a guide than a novel and is all the more interesting for that reason, with its dispassionate accounts of horrific scenes interspersed with comments on the official response to the disease and advice to future readers.

I did find it frustrating that we weren’t given more hands-on accounts of the fate of individuals and their families, or more details of the situation throughout the country as a whole. Some of the most interesting parts of the book were those which referred to the small everyday aspects of life in London in 1665, such as the mention of bear-baiting being banned due to the illness. Likewise it was very revealing of the prejudices and snobbery in place at the time. Defoe makes no secret of his contempt for the working classes or for women, or indeed for those who do not share his religious beliefs. It was instructional and more than a bit apposite in today’s climate to read his disapproval of the poor, including the ‘labouring poor’ who spent money ‘with abandon’. The more things change…

“But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and the most liable to infection; and if they were spoken to, their answer would be, 'I must trust to God for that; if I am taken, then I am provided for, and there is an end of me', and the like.” Pg 134

I loved the constant speculation on the causes of the plague and the efficacy of various treatments. It was remarkable and a bit spooky to read Defoe skirting around the edges of what we know now to be the facts of the Black Death.

“that many people had the plague in their very blood, and preying upon their spirits, and were in themselves but walking putrefied carcases whose breath was infectious and their sweat poison, and yet were as well to look on as other people, and even knew it not themselves; I say, they all allowed that it was really true in fact, but they knew not how to propose a discovery. My friend Dr Heath was of opinion that it might be known by the smell of their breath; but then, as he said, who durst smell to that breath for his information?” pg 130

Parts of the book are pretty gory, and these are the parts which read as a typical dystopian novel. In my opinion though the book isn’t nearly as grisly as I hoped expected, probably due to its focus on the facts and its distant and objective stance. With my historical ignorance coupled with my over-familiarity of cheap dramatic novelistic tricks, I expected the book to end with the whole of London and its plague-ridden inhabitants going up in cleansing flames as the city is consumed by the Great Fire. Spoiler: it doesn’t.

“lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men's hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” Pg 10


Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the history of 17th century London or in disease. Otherwise you probably won’t find much to relish here.

On the big screen

Would love to see a BBC miniseries focusing on the plague in London in 1665. Ideally in the style of The Wire, illuminating the corruption and failed attempts to address the problem as much as the disease itself.


Yes, the subject is about as grisly as it gets, but it still passes as highbrow due to its literary pedigree, its age, and its columns of statistics.