After the Fireworks: Three Novellas by Aldous Huxley

“Ostrichism–it’s the only rational philosophy of conduct.”

In Aldous Huxley’s novella, After the Fireworks, fifty-year-old bachelor, author Miles Fanning is in Rome for his annual stay in Rome with his “oldest friend,” Colin Judd, a man Fanning confesses that he doesn’t like, but still a man who is an asset. It’s through Fanning’s relationship with Judd that we first get a glimpse at this famous author’s character, and it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. Fanning uses Judd for his house in Rome, and because of the free accommodations, he’s willing to let the possessive Judd fuss over him.


Most of Judd’s competition is in the form of Fanning’s female fans, and Fanning, knowing this, has the habit of teasing Judd, provoking his friend’s jealousy.

He was having his revenge. Nothing upset poor Colin Judd so much as having to listen to talk about women or love. He had a horror of  anything connected with the act, the mere thought, of sex.

Fanning has received a letter from a twenty-one-year-old fan, Pamela Tarn, who just happens to arrive in Rome. Fanning, who sometimes has affairs with his women fans, knows that Pamela is too young for him, and he knows that he shouldn’t take advantage of her youth or the fact that she worships him. Fanning is happy to flirt with Pamela as she’s an attractive girl with “impertinent little breasts,” and after all, it’s very flattering to have a young, beautiful girl hanging on his every word:

There was even something quite agreeable in resisting temptation; it had the charms of a strenuous and difficult sport. Like mountain climbing.

He mentions Pamela to an old, female friend, Dodo, a woman he contemplated having an affair with years earlier. She knew Pamela’s mother Clare, and according to Dodo, Clare, a mediocre woman, was a fantasist when it came to her GPs (grand passions) and so-called Caprices. It seems likely that Pamela, “vamping by correspondence,” may be a lot like her mother–a born groupie.

What she’s seen of the world she’s seen in her mother’s company. The worst guide imaginable, to judge from the child’s account. (Dead now, incidentally.) The sort of woman who could never live on top gear, so to speak-only at one or two imaginative removes from the facts. So that, in her company, what was nominally real life became actually just literature. Bad, inadequate Balzac in flesh and blood instead of genuine, good Balzac out of a set of nice green volumes


After the Fireworks is an interesting tale for its exploration of an author’s relationship with a particularly persistent fan. Fanning enjoys the attention from attractive female fans, and yet also cringes at the thought that anyone ‘understands’ him. He’s well aware that women read his books, identify with the heroines, and imagine that their lives are part of some sort of epic romance (sometimes with him in the picture). It’s a phenomenon known as “Miles Fanningism”

The plot contains some chapters with Pamela writing, rather immature observations about Fanning, in her diary, while inadvertently revealing her youth, inexperience, and unrealistic worship. After the Fireworks has a literal and figurative meaning with Fanning arguing, logically, in one particularly strong passage, why they shouldn’t engage in a love affair, but the problem is that Pamela won’t take no for an answer…

This could have been written as a tragedy (Anna Karenina is mentioned) but instead this is an excellent novella about human folly. Just because we know we shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean that we will behave sensibly. The story had a Jamesion feel to it, and no doubt the location accentuated the connection.

This is one of three novellas published in a single volume. The others are Two or Three Graces and Uncle Spencer. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and was pleasantly surprised by Huxley. Isn’t that a great cover?

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Huxley Aldous

His Only Son: Leopoldo Alas

Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.


Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.”  In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.

It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.

Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”

His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.

Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.

The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that  “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.

Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.

Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.

No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”  

Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.

The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.

Review copy

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


Filed under Alas Leopoldo, Fiction

The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.


The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti


Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

The Cornish Coast Murder: John Bude (1935)

“This fact seemed to rule out a homicidal maniac.”

The Cornish Coast Murder opens with two old friends, the Vicar of St Michael’s-on-the-Cliff and Doctor Pendrill meeting, one stormy night, at the vicar’s home for their regularly arranged dinner and chat about crime books. The two men take turns to send a list of six crime books to the local library; these books are delivered, carefully packaged, in a crate, and the doctor and the vicar undergo “a division of the spoils,” with a swap mid-week, so that both men read all six crime books before sending off for the next order. The two men, both bachelors with housekeepers, have diametrically opposed philosophical positions to life, but in crime, there’s a meeting of the minds.

For years the Doctor and the Vicar had indulged this vicarious though perhaps perfectly common lust for crime stories. It was one of the jokes of the parish. They made no attempts to hide their common admiration for those authors who, with spider-like tenacity, weave a web and expect the poor, harassed reader to disentangle the pattern and follow the single thread back to its original source. 

The book opens very strongly indeed with the vicar opening the box of books and delightedly pawing over the contents:

“A very Catholic choice,” he concluded. “Let’s see now–and Edgar Wallace–quite right, Pendrill, I hadn’t read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J. S Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You’ve run the gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes.!” The Doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe.

Bude very cleverly draws us into the action with this scene. He withholds the titles of the books, but the pleasure felt by the vicar also ripples through readers who can so easily share the vicar’s anticipation of a good week of reading ahead. Of course, Bude has also, by this point, introduced the fact that nothing ever happens in this sleepy “isolated” village of Boscawen which boasts a population of “some four hundred souls.”

Even the way that the meal is announced, by the sound of a gong, underscores the idea that nothing ruffles the harmony of routine, so of course, any self-respecting reader of crime fiction knows that the peaceful ambiance of this Cornish community is about to be ripped apart. Everything changes when a call comes for Doctor Pendrill from the panicked Ruth Tregarthan who finds her uncle shot dead inside his clifftop home, Greylings. The circumstances of the crime leave some clues but also create some unanswerable questions. Poor Grouch, the local policeman, who valiantly cycles through rain and storm, is soon replaced at the scene of the crime by  Inspector Bigswell and his uniformed chauffeur.

Bigswell, pressured to solve the crime or accept the intrusion of Scotland Yard turns to the vicar for advice, and of course, the vicar is only too happy to indulge his love of crime. Apart from Ruth Tregarthan, most of the other characters can’t hide their glee that there’s a murder to investigate, but occasionally, the vicar does the appropriate thing and reminds the reader that a tragedy has occurred.

The camaraderie between the vicar and the doctor, the novel’s great strength, is great fun. Crime detection, as portrayed in this novel, favours the wealthy while the female characters are weak or prone to hysteria. Ruth, due to some unexplained behaviour, quickly becomes a prime suspect, but she’s treated rather like a pampered child by the Inspector who takes the stern fatherly role.

But there it was-a woman in love was always a foolhardy and unreasonable creature, though not devoid, as the Inspector realized, of a certain inspired cunning.

The Cornish Coast Murder is another crime novel that’s been out of print, now resurrected for fans by The British Library Crime Classics series. There’s nothing new added to the genre, and while this isn’t one of the strongest entries in the series, neither is it, with the addition of the relationship between the vicar and the doctor, the weakest.  John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore) 1901-1957 was a writer of Fantastic fiction before he tried his hand at crime, and The Cornish Coast Murder was his first crime novel.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

The Trespasser: Tana French

“But I know if we actually catch what we’re hunting, it’s probably gonna rip our faces off.”

In Tana French’s crime novel, The Trespasser, Dublin Murder Squad detectives, Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran investigate what initially seems to be a fairly standard “slam-dunk” domestic violence case involving a young, attractive blonde named Aislinn Murray who is found dead in her tiny home. She had a date that night with a bookshop owner named Rory Fallon, a man she’d met just a few weeks before. Fallon claims that he was invited to Aislinn’s home for the very first time for dinner but that Aislinn did not answer the door. There’s something off about Fallon’s statement, and with Conway and Moran pressured by a senior detective, the slick, popular Breslin and Superintendent O’Kelly, to wind this case up, it seems all too easy to arrest Fallon, but from the start, when Conway and Moran are handed the case at the end of their shift, there are some aspects of the murder that don’t quite feel right.


Aislinn, at first, looks like a “dead Barbie” to the hardened Conway. She fits the ideal of beauty, paper thin, blonde and dressed in designer clothes. Yet according to her best friend, Lucy, who argues that they weren’t that close, Aislinn had no real friends, had just recently started coming out of her shell, and may have been seeing a married man. There’s something strange about the whole case; Aislinn’s life seems like a cookie cutter version of the brainless blonde, yet as Conway digs deeper, she remembers where she saw Aislinn before, and back then, Aislinn was a completely different person…

Aislinn’s doing it again: getting blurrier with everything I find out about her.

The novel portrays Conway, who’s ostracized from the rest of the squad and Moran, her easy-going partner working on a “never-ending run of domestics,” wanting a case that will require some skill, and not the obvious solve cases they’ve been working lately.  Part of the reason for this may reside in the building hostility towards Conway in the squad room. Conway is on the brink of making a career move when the Aislinn Murray case comes her way. Moran is much more interested in understanding the victim than Conway, and the reason for that resides in Conway’s steely shell .

The plot focuses on the hard grind of designating the minutiae of small tasks, the conversations between detectives of alternating theories, and several intense interviews of suspects. We see how when detectives build theories, there’s a line, a very fine line, between the possible and a fantasy:

All these stories. They hum like fist-sized hornets in the corners of the ceiling, circling idly, saving their strength. I want to pull out my gun and blow them away, neatly, one by one, vaporize them into swirls of black grit drifting downwards and gone. 

The Trespasser illustrates how detectives can be seduced by a theory, the importance of understanding the victim, and how, in the absence of another suspect, circumstantial evidence can go a long way towards conviction.

Even when we have something, touching it crumbles it into nothing. More nothing, sifting down like fine dust, piling up in sticky drifts on the glossy desks, gumming up the swanky computers.

The Trespasser, although it could be designated as a police procedural, is a very interior novel–mostly focusing on Conway’s thought processes which are influenced, and prejudiced, by her background and the ostracism at work. This is the sixth entry in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and in this novel, we see the career of the hard-boiled Antoinette Conway, and the evolution of a murder detective. With the emphasis on the interior struggles of Conway and the grind of patient police work, The Trespasser may not appeal to readers who are looking for excitement, but due to the usual nature of the plot’s trajectory, it’s easy to see The Trespasser, a tale of revenge, manipulation and obsession, becoming a seminal crime novel for its study of methodology:

You don’t make the Murder Squad without having a world-class gift for finding creative ways to get under someone’s skin and wriggle around in there till they’d rip themselves open to get rid of you.

Review copy

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books


Filed under French Tana

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin (1946)

“One never knows with poets.”

In Edmund Crispin’s wonderfully funny crime novel, The Moving Toyshop, Poet Richard Cadogan pressures his publisher for an advance on his next book of poems, and so with fifty pounds in his hot little hands, he hightails it to Oxford for a much needed holiday. Having missed the last train, he hitchhikes into Oxford, and arriving late in  town, he stumbles into a toyshop. Imagine his shock when he finds a dead woman inside the building, but before he can call for help, he’s coshed on the head. When he wakes up stuffed in a cupboard, he dashes off to the police, and the police return, with Cadogan, to the scene of the crime. The toyshop has turned into a grocery shop, there’s no dead body, and the police dismiss Cadogan’s story. Cadogan decides to call upon the assistance of Gervase Fen, assistant professor at St Christopher’s College.


The energetic, indefatigable Gervase Fen, who roars around Oxford in a red “battered” sports car named LILY CHRISTINE III, decides to investigate, refusing to turn the case over to the police. In fact he spends most of the book avoiding them with the exception of frequent phone calls to the Chief Inspector who only wants to discuss Shakespeare, but these short conversations always end with Fen hanging up.

“Gervase, it’s a common view that Measure for Measure is about chastity–“

“Very common indeed,” said Fen. “Quite reprehensible. Goodbye.” He rang off.

In his efforts to solve the crime, Fen rustles up a band of assistants including the lorry driver who reads D.H Lawrence and an amorous undergraduate whose success with women comes down to plying them with chocolates.

There are so many wonderful scenes in this literature-loving crime novel. Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,”  also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,“Detestable Characters in Fiction,” and “Unreadable Books.” In one lively scene at the pub, a debate rages over the merits of  Jane Austen, and the clues to the identities of possible murder suspects are found embedded in the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. Fen breaks the ‘fourth wall’ when he jokes about thinking about titles for Edmund Crispin’s books.

The Moving Toyshop is a romp. Although by the end of the book there are several dead bodies, our heroes are never really in danger, and they are clearly having a great time–well the inexhaustible Fen is having fun, but then he doesn’t appear to have any self-doubt or an iota of fear. The plot barrels along at a breakneck pace, but it’s the author’s wonderful, lightening sense of humour that elevate this novel and make it really something extraordinary. Here are just two examples:

At one point a policeman stops Fen and Cadogan as they pursue a young blonde suspected of involvement in the murder through the streets of Oxford:

The constable scratched his nose. “Well now,” he said. “We’re all for love in the Force, but fair’s fair, you know. One of you at a time, and no stampeding.”

And at another point, Cadogan’s publisher, who doesn’t want to give the poet an advance in order for him to take a holiday, offers a few days at his country home instead:

“Perhaps you’d like to stay with me for a few days at Caxton’s Folly?”

“Can you give me adventure, excitement, lovely women?”

“These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there’s my wife…” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.

The Moving Toyshop is book 3 in Edmund Crispin’s (real name Robert Mongomery 1921-1978) Gervase Fen series. I’ve also read The Glimpses of the Moon, book 9 in the series, and strangely, Fen seems to be a much more developed character in book 3 than in book 9. JJ at The Invisible Event says that The Moving Toyshop is the best of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series. 

Review copy



Filed under Crispin Edmund, Fiction

The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.


The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy



Filed under Fiction

Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.


As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

Review copy


Filed under McNicoll Susan, Non Fiction

Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.


Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.


“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann

The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .


The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….


“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

review copy

translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)


Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction