Category Archives: Fiction

The Jinx: Thèophile Gautier

What is shrouded in the fogs of England becomes clear in the sunlight of Naples…”

The Jinx, a short tale from French author Thèophile Gautier is a tale of fate, love and the Evil Eye. My edition, translated by Andrew Brown, is from Hesperus Press, and it’s a perfect little tale to read and finish on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

The story opens with the arrival in Naples of a young Frenchman, Paul d’Aspremont.

His eyes in particular were extraordinary; the black lashes that bordered them contrasted with the light grey colour of his irises and the burnt brown tones of his hair. The thinness of the bones in his nose made these eyes seem set more closely together than the proportions established by the principles of drawing allow, and, as for their expression, it was quite indefinable. When they were gazing into space, a vague melancholy, a fondly lethargic expression could be read in them, and they had a moist gleam; if they focused on any person or object, the brows came together, contracted, and carved a perpendicular crease in the skin of his forehead: his irises, turning from grey to green, became speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils; his gaze flashed from them, piercing and almost wounding; then all resumed its initial placidity, and this character with his Mephistophean appearance turned back into a young man of the world.

While initially Paul appears to be a tourist, it’s soon revealed that he’s in Naples to join his fiancée, a young orphaned English girl named Alicia Ward, who’s travelled to a warmer climate in the company of her uncle. While the two young people reunite in joy, a dark cloud soon hovers over their relationship. Wherever Paul fixes his gaze, tragedy and disaster soon follow, and while the young lovers seem oblivious to this phenomenon, the people of Naples, including the Count Altaville, recognize the danger as … The Evil Eye!!

the jinx

While this tale may sound a little over-the-top, Gautier is convincing with his presentation of inescapable fate and tragic love. Paul d’Aspremont and Alicia Ward are visitors to Naples, and the beliefs of the locals seem to have little relevance to the elegance of the fastidious Frenchman or the fresh, fragile beauty of the young Englishwoman. At first they appear to be untouched by the superstitions of the region. Gradually, however, with an ever-encroaching sense of doom, it becomes clear that Naples is not the problem…

The introduction mentions that Gauthier was influenced by Hoffmann, but that Gauthier soars above “his rivals,” with his “high stylistic sheen.” I’ve read and enjoyed a few Hoffman stories, but Gauthier’s tale seems superior. We arrive in Naples with d’Aspremont and see the city, and its foreign customs, through his eyes. D’Aspremont and Alicia seem ‘normal’ and wholesome (after all, here are two young lovers who have promised to marry), and it’s Naples and its inhabitants that seem dark, archaic and superstitious.  Drawn gradually into the story, the easy dismissal of superstitious nonsense morphs into desperate hope until the full horror of the curse borne by d’Aspremont is revealed, and it’s this inversion, if you will, the evil carried unwittingly by an innocent that makes this story so powerful

Part of Gauthier’s skill resides in his imagery. At one point, for example, Paul likens Alicia to Ophelia, and Alicia talks about her dislike for bouquets and “the corpses of roses.” Even the gorgeous descriptions of lush landscapes harbor an undercurrent of exotic menace:

The calash left the main road, turned onto a track and stopped in front of a door formed by two pillars of white bricks, topped by urns of red clay, in which blossoming aloe flowers spread out their leaves, similar to sheets of tin plate and pointed like daggers. An openwork fence, painted green, served as a gate. Instead of a wall there was a cactus hedge whose shoots twisted themselves into irregular patterns and wove their sharp-pointed prickly pears into an inextricable tangle.

And to give another example of Gauthier’s silken, yet precise, sentences, here’s Paul looking in the mirror.

He stood in front of a mirror and gazed at himself with frightening intensity; that composite perfection, the result of beauties that are not usually found together, made him resemble more than ever the fallen archangel, and gleamed with a sinister light in the dark depths of the mirror; the fibrils of his eyes quivered like the bow from which the deadly arrow has just taken wing; the white furrow in his brow recalled the scar left by a bolt of lightning, and in his gleaming hair hellish flames seemed to be flickering; the marble pallor of his skin exacerbated each feature of this truly terrible physiognomy.

Paul felt frightened by himself-it seemed to him that the emanation of his eyes, reflected by the mirror, reverberated towards him in the shape of poisoned darts, like Medusa gazing at her horrible and charming head in the fawn reflection of a bronze shield.

Max’s review

Kevin’s review

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Crucifixion Creek: Barry Maitland

Crucifixion Creek is the first novel in the promised Belltree Trilogy written by Barry Maitland and featuring Homicide detective, army vet, Harry Belltree. Belltree is the son of Australia’s first Aboriginal judge of the NSW Supreme Court who was killed along with his wife in a mysterious car accident three years previously. There’s just one clue that festers in Belltree’s brain–a swipe of white paint on his parent’s demolished car and a “patrol car reported seeing a white tow truck further down the highway.” Everyone tells Harry that he needs to move on, but his brother-in-law, builder Greg, suspects that the reason Harry became a homicide detective resides in the deaths of his parents.

The novel opens with a hostage situation which ends badly in Crucifixion Creek, but this is just one in a series of incidents which take place in the drab, mostly deserted neighbourhood inhabited and dominated, with just a few exceptions, by a Bikie Group known as the Crows. One of the murders drags Detective Belltree, already under a cloud in the department, under closer scrutiny “for a fitness for duty assessment,” but it’s ambitious reporter Kelly Pool who works for the Bankstown Chronicle who begins to connect the seemingly random events.

crucifixion creek

With Belltree very personally involved in one of the murders, he steps beyond orthodox police work and begins a parallel investigation of his own. This involves his wife, Jenny, blinded in the same accident that killed Belltree’s parents. Before the accident, Jenny was a researcher for a law firm, and now with a special computer, she still works part time from home. Belltree, driven by the imperative to investigate the connection between the recent killings and the murder of his parents, relies on his wife’s computer skills.

This brings me to the one beef I had with this novel. I can understand someone being a whiz at computers, but Jenny’s abilities strain credulity–some of it I could buy but some of her hacking seemed to exist to further the plot, so much so that I almost abandoned the novel. It’s to the novel’s sheer readability that I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Strong on atmosphere and characterization, Crucifixion Creek argues that we never really know anyone or just what they’re capable of. Belltree has a number of revelations regarding his brother-in-law, Greg March, a man who appeared to have a lucrative business and plenty of money, yet Greg, who maintained an affluent lifestyle in an architectural wonder of a magazine-worthy home, had many problems which all began and ended with money. Greg March’s accountant may or may not be bent, and here he is in a poky, smelly little office–another character who’s making ends meet and who may be open to making money on the side.

The accountant’s office is in a suburban shopping centre, above a fast food outlet. Sam Peck is a small, rotund, cheery man and he has a bag of golf clubs sitting in the corner of his office, like a promise to himself. This, together with the smell of old grease that seems to have saturated everything, does little to fill Harry with confidence.

This is a very dark, tense, fast-paced crime novel, a story of twisted power and absolute corruption with blurred lines between conflicting loyalties, justice and the law. Belltree never hesitates to cross those lines; there’s no moral quibbling as he plunges into the very personal investigation of his parents’ death. Initially his brutality is shocking, but it meshes perfectly with the rest of the novel.

While this story of shady moneylenders, crooked politicians and meth-dealing bikies ends, it’s clear there are still loose ends for Harry Belltree to pick up in book 2. I’m in.

Review copy.

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The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis

“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”

The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.

In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match  against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.

The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.

The Sin Eater

Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.

The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”

Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.

Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.

‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.

‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.

‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.

‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’

It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’

‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’

Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.

Henry looked unusually sombre.

As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.

The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.

Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…

While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:

‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.

As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.

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My Marriage: Jakob Wassermann

“It was the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds.”

I don’t think you can beat California when it comes to divorce laws. This is a no-fault, community property state, and that boils down to the two basic elements: if one party wants a divorce and the other doesn’t, tough, it’s sayonara. And no one really cares whose fault it is; it’s 50/50 baby.

Now why do I preface a review of a German novel in translation, published in 1934, from the fabulous NYRB with a comment about California’s divorce laws? Well I’ll get back to that later.

My Marriage from Jakob Wasserman is a novel about a writer, Alexander Hertzog, who, in his late 20s, marries Ganna, a young heiress. Fast forward to three children, the dowry spent, countless affairs, and Hertzog, now further in his career, falls in love with another woman, wants a divorce, and guess what … Ganna doesn’t roll over and give him what he wants.

My Marriage

Hertzog, our narrator, is a penniless young writer, one meal away from starvation when he’s introduced to Ganna–one of six daughters, “the ugly duckling among five swans,” and the one who’s also “hard to manage.” Now in hindsight, Hertzog draws the warning signs in the sand of a determined young woman who may not be the most stable female on the planet. Ganna is obsessive, willful and, apparently, worships Hertzog. Determined to get him for a husband, she pursues him and talks him into it. There’s a bit of waffling here, but it’s easy to see that Hertzog is swayed by the money and persuades himself that Ganna, who is starstruck by Hertzog’s talent, will make a good wife.

Should I have shut myself away, should I have remained aloof and said: begone, there is no room for you in my life? There was room. Of course, the fact that I saw and sensed her the way I did in my self-sacrificial compassion, this single pregnant moment that bore the seed of thirty years-that was also in part Ganna’s doing, her over-powerful will, her dazzling sorcery. But I wasn’t to know that back then.

Hertzog does a lot of bitching about Ganna. There’s never really a honeymoon period that palls and segues into disillusionment; he’s always at the “mercy of her drives.” One of his complaints is that Ganna has the bad manners to discuss his extramarital affairs in public.

My senses too were aflame. Ravenous appetite alternated with satiety. No woman was enough for me; none gave me what I was dimly seeking: a sense of who I was, some final easement of the blood. I went from one to another, and it was often as though I had to break them open like a husk of shell with unknown contents, peeling them like a fruit which I then discarded.

Hertzog has basic problems with Ganna right from the start; she’s emotionally needy, manipulative and prone to hysteria, and surprise surprise, some of the problems are over money. It’s been drilled into Ganna to live off the interest of her 80,000 crowns, and not touch the capital, but Hertzog finds that idea rather grubby.

What was it all for, I would ask myself periodically, to be living like an outlaw? A bank account, I thought is obviously intended to be a type of conserve, like foie gras; not something anyone eat fresh.

As I read My Marriage, I kept thinking about von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs; it’s an account of one man’s search for the ideal harsh mistress (and his fantasy was to have a woman treat him like crap until he decided it was time for the game to stop. Logical fallacy…who’s really in charge?) If you read it, you also have to read his wife’s version of events, The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch –contrasting the two is hilarious. My Marriage is a diatribe from the fictional Hertzog about his wife, but the events in the book mirror Wasserman’s life. As noted in the afterword, “as anyone reading it then or now can tell instantly, Ganna (or now) My Marriage is the true account of Jakob Wassermann’s marriage to Julie Speyer of Vienna.” Ganna (aka Julie Speyer) had her say in Psyche Bleeds (Julie Speyer’s novel was The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage,) and according to Hertzog, aka Wassermann, it’s wasn’t pretty.

It’s impossible to determine the dynamics of another’s marriage, and that brings me back to the ‘no fault’ divorce. With a divorce in which one party must prove ‘wrong,’ who can really tell (unless, let’s say for example, in a case of abuse) where the first misstep took place? And a no-fault divorce doesn’t allow one party to hang on the other spouse just out of spite or revenge.

Poor Hertzog seemed to forget that marriage is a legally binding contract, so we see him complaining how Ganna wants him to provide dowries for his two daughters while also providing for her in perpetuity.

The Kraal’s imperative was: provide for your brood, man; first and foremost your brood, we don’t give a hoot about what happens to you; let the deserter work himself to the bone; let him fail and come to his senses; let him and his mistress fail ever to free themselves from the shackles.

In the aftermath of the separation, Ganna, now with her dowry gone, tries to create an income stream for herself, but fails, only generating a mountain of bills which she expects Hertzog to pay. Hertzog seems to see this as another attempt to drain him dry, and it’s likely that just how reasonable and unreasonable these two parties are, will cause some division of opinion amongst readers. While it’s easy to have a lot of sympathy for a man who wishes to sever ties with a woman he can’t stand, it’s not so easy to have sympathy for a man who wishes to step away from his obligations and start with a clean slate.

This is a very emotionally involving book, and I found myself, at several points, wanting to slap the pair of them. There’s a dynamic between Hertzog and Ganna which becomes increasingly pathological as the distance between the pair grows. Neither one knows when to stop, and as Ganna grows increasingly desperate, Hertzog inadvertently feeds her desire to be involved in his life. Hertzog is so passive, he creates his own fate, and Ganna, who “had something of a sorceress about her,” won’t release Hertzog from her possession.

It’s all very sad. Is Ganna as unbalanced as Hertzog claims? If so, is he responsible for this? After all this was a young woman raised in privilege, trained for marriage, who suddenly found herself, in middle age, penniless and cast adrift. Is Wasserman motivated by guilt when he responds to Ganna’s repeated annoying requests? By the end of the book, the sympathy see-saw wobbles back and forth.

I first heard of this book through Tom’s blog, so thanks for the recommendation. This book would be great material for book clubs, for it’s certain to generate some lively conversations.

Translated by Michael Hofmann

Review copy/own a copy

 

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The Shut Eye: Belinda Bauer

“Your future,” he whispered, “is my memory.”

I’d never heard of the author Belinda Bauer, but then I came across The Shut Eye, highly recommended by Cleo, a fellow crime aficionado who reviews at Cleopatra Loves Books. Cleo’s recommendation came with the caveat that she found the psychic element a bit off-putting, but I knew that if carried off by the author carefully, I’d rather like that different twist to a crime novel.

The book’s detective is Lewisham DCI Jack Marvel, a cynical hardened detective whose job has left him with a sour opinion of people, but he’s still a good detective with a “staggering” 84% solve rate.

The longer DCI Jack Marvel worked in homicide, the more he disliked people. He’d never met one he didn’t hate–or despise, at the very least–and he could see the bad in anyone.

It was a useful quality in a detective. Not so much in a human being. Murder was DCI Marvel’s favourite thing in the whole world–even above Sky Sports. There was no other crime that had the sheer black-and-white finality of murder, and it was one of the few things in life that he took personally. He was good at it, too. He had hunches and insights; he had the dogged obsession to keep going when everyone else had given up–not because he wanted to solve the crime, but because he hated to lose. Solving murders was a competition, make no bones about it. The killer won, or the cops won.

Marvel is working on a case of a murdered prostitute, but he can’t let go of the unsolved case of twelve year old Edie Evans who disappeared on her way to school over a year ago. Although the case was initially treated as truancy, the moment Marvel walks into the missing girl’s bedroom he “had known that she’d been taken.” It’s a gut feeling blended from experience, a feeling of the victim, and perhaps, just perhaps, something else….

the shut eye

There were no real clues about Edie’s disappearance except her abandoned bicycle and a few drops of blood nearby. Even a psychic, “Shut Eye” Richard Latham, is consulted in the case, but Edie is never found, and now, more than a year later, the case is cold and shelved.

Marvel, who we now know is a good detective but a crap human being, is like a dog with a bone when it comes to his cases, so he’s furious when he’s pulled off the case of the murdered prostitute and asked, in confidence by his boss, Superintendent Clyde, to help find his wife’s missing poodle, Mitzi. It’s a very funny scene when Marvel is shown a photo of “a buxom woman with too much lipstick sitting on a sofa.” Marvel thinks initially he’s supposed to find the woman, so he’s stunned when his boss tells him he’s supposed to find the dog that’s also in the photo. Marvel sees the favour as an opportunity to leverage promotion

It was his unshakeable view that everybody had a flaw in their make-up that allowed leverage to be exerted, and he liked to think he had a knack of identifying those weaknesses, those tiny human failings, that would give him the upper hand in any relationship.

So a very resentful Marvel begins investigating the case of the missing poodle, and this brings Marvel back to Latham. Meanwhile Anna Buck, a woman whose toddler went missing a few months previously also contacts Latham out of sheer desperation, and this is where all paths intersect….

That’s as much of the plot of this pageturner as I’m going to discuss. It could be argued that the plot is marred by coincidence, but that argument is refuted by the idea that coincidence is often orchestrated by some bizarre design, all compounded by watching the lives of our characters as they overlap like circles in a Venn diagram.

The emphasis here is on character, and for this reader, although the book opens with Anna Buck, who’s gone mad with grief, the main character here is Marvel. I loved the psychic element to the story, and appreciated the clever way the author showed families in different stages of grief. Edie’s parents, still standing together, have come to a horrible quiet acceptance that their daughter is most likely dead, but that doesn’t stop a desperate hope surging whenever Marvel calls. In contrast is Anna Buck, sinking into madness, who blames her husband for their son’s disappearance. At the lowest point in her life, she sees a psychic as the last possible hope, and meeting Latham has consequences that none of our characters could have predicted. Marvel, a misanthrope, and an antagonist to his own feelings, is the most interesting character here. There’s a lot to admire about Marvel but he lacks humanity–almost as though he’s afraid that benevolence will become a chink in his armour. Ultimately, however, it’s Marvel who emerges from these experiences as a better person, a man who has grown emotionally in spite of his best efforts to the contrary.

Review copy.

 

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A Song for the Brokenhearted: William Shaw

“Violence had its echo.”

A Song for the Brokenhearted is the third volume in William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer trilogy. The dynamic between these two main characters, both outsiders for different reasons, are a major draw for this series. CID CS Cathal Breen, known as ‘Paddy’ doesn’t ‘fit in’ with his Division, and Helen Tozer, never taken seriously by her male colleagues, is a young female policewoman, Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) who hails from the countryside. In the first book, She’s Leaving Home, the mismatched team of Breen and Tozer tackle a murder case, in The Kings of London Breen investigates the murder of a wealthy art collector, and this final book in the trilogy, opens at the Tozer farm. Helen has given up on her career and has returned home to work. Breen is there for.. well read The Kings of London for that one.

The series is unique for its 60s setting–Tozer, in the first book is the source of many sexist comments and expectations from her male workmates who think she exists to make their coffee and giggle over their jokes, and meanwhile Beatlemania rages through Britain. Shaw’s characters are firmly rooted in their time, so we have speculation about why a nice girl like Helen Tozer wants to be a policewoman, but the answer to that lies in her past.

a song for the brokenhearted

That brings me to A Song for the Brokenhearted–anyone who read the first and second books in the series knows that Tozer is haunted by the brutal, unsolved slaying of her sister Alexandra. This vicious crime is the root cause for Tozer’s career choice, and the murder is so deeply embedded in the character of Helen Tozer that we know its solution had to occur somewhere in the series. With Breen bored out of his mind on the Tozer farm, he grasps how the unsolved murder permeates the household. He begins poking around in the cold murder case.

Murdered people never really go away. They stay with you. If you never discover why they were killed, or who the killer was, it’s worse. As a policeman he knew this from the families and friends of the victims that he’d met over the years. Now living here, the dead girl was all around him in this house.

Using Tozer’s influence, he accesses the old files and discovers that information regarding a key witness, one of Alexandra’s many secret lovers, is missing from storage. After discovering the name of this witness, a wealthy local married man, Breen begins digging into the case, and the past comes back with swift retribution.

As with the previous two books in the series, the author does an excellent job of recreating the 60s atmosphere without nostalgia, and since this entry in the trilogy is set, mostly, in the countryside, the 60s references are more social values than star power, so at one point, for example, we see a pregnant woman puffing away at a cigarette–funny how that seems shocking these days, and hear about jury selection for the Kray brothers’ trial.  Shaw presents the generational gap between Breen and Tozer as the world of the 50s clashing with the 60s. This is a world in flux with rapidly shifting values. In this novel, there’s an additional element of colonialism, and the Dirty business carried out in Kenya washes up in unexpected ways in spite of, apparently, being swept under the rug.

Review copy.

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Expiration Date: Duane Swierczynski

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski, and with the arrival of 2016, it seemed like a good time to attack those bookshelves and get to his backlist, and that brings me to Expiration Date, a novel which clearly shows this author’s comic book roots.

expiration date

Set in the author’s native Philadelphia, this is a tale of unemployed journalist, Mickey Wade who finds himself, at 37 years old, with just over a $100 to his name, moving into his hospitalized grandfather’s run down apartment in Frankford, “one of the busiest drug corridors in the city.” Mickey thinks he’s hit rock bottom.

Slumming is one thing when you’re twenty two and just out of college and backed up by a deep-pile parental checking account. But moving into a bad neighborhood when you’re thirty-seven and have exhausted all other options is something else entirely. It’s a heavy thing with a rope, dragging you down to a lower social depth with no easy way back to the surface.

Waking from a hangover, Mickey opens his grandfather’s padlocked medicine cabinet and finds a “oversized vintage jar of Tylenol with a worn and cracked label,” stamped with an expiration date of 1982. Mickey takes four, goes to sleep, and wakes up in 1972….

Going back to the past is an intriguing idea. At first Mickey just takes disturbing trips for nostalgia and curiosity, but then realizes that something much deeper is afoot when he digs through papers and medical reports in his grandfather’s apartment which link these pills, and the things he sees on his various journeys, to the brutal, senseless slaying of his father that occurred decades earlier. The big question becomes, ‘can Mickey change the past?’

The more I practiced, the better my aim. The human mind is capable of all kinds of amazing tricks. Like telling yourself the night before that you want to wake up at a  certain time in the morning. more often than not, you wake up at that time–even beating the alarm clock you set as a backup.

So whenever I popped a pill, or the sliver of a pill, I started thinking hard about the date I wanted.

February 24.

February 28.

March 10.

March 30.

And so on.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go back beyond the day I was born–February 22, 1972. This seemed the default line, and it was disappointing. The journalist in me had fantasies about going back to November 22, 1963, staking out the grassy knoll in Dallas and putting that nearly fifty-year-old story to bed. Dear Oliver Stone, my e-mail would begin….

But nothing doing. If I concentrated on February 21, 1972–or any day preceding it–I ended up back in February 22, 1972, by default.

I also couldn’t go back to a time I’d already visited. Maybe this was a built-in protection feature to prevent me from ripping open the fabric of reality , or something.

It worked.

The story includes a mental asylum, sinister secret government experiments, astral projection, but the pills, as Mickey discovers, have different results depending on who’s taking them….

Mickey Wade’s gnarly old grandfather may be lying in his hospital bed hooked up to numerous tubes and monitoring machines, but that doesn’t stop him from being a major player in this tale. Mickey’s mother, defeated by life’s disappointments, and now living with an ambulance chasing lawyer, Whiplash Walt, also makes an appearance.

Whiplash Walt was in rare form. Touching my mom’s shoulders, her back, her waist–like he was planning on killing her later and wanted to place as many fingerprints as possible, just so the Philly PD would be extra-clear who’d done it.

I’ve read a number of Swierczynski novels–all crime, all the time, so this book, with the time travel ‘butterfly effect‘ twist, was quite different from the others I read, but then again, when I think about what happened to Charlie Hardie, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. As always with this author and his seemingly casual, lightly humorous style, this was a fun read. The novel certainly serves to showcase this author’s range, and the illustrations by Laurence Campbell underscore the author’s comic book roots.

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

Review copy

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The Childrens Home: Charles Lambert

I was introduced to the work of Charles Lambert in 2010 through the novel, Any Human Face.  In 2011 I read Little Monsters, The Slave House in 2013, and A View from the Tower in 2014. The Children’s Home was my first book for 2016, and it’s a complete change of pace for this author. Following the trajectory of a nightmare, the book starts with the feeling of a fairy tale, morphs into fable and then the mirror cracks to reveal a dystopian horror. This genre-defying book is being compared to the work of Neil Gaiman, and although I’m not that familiar with Gaiman’s work to make a comparison, I think it’s best to judge the novel on its own merit.

The novel concerns a hideously disfigured recluse, Morgan, who lives in a rambling, elaborate walled country estate, in a house designed by his grandfather. Very little information is given at first about Morgan, his life, his family’s fortune or why he has chosen to isolate himself, but gradually over the course of the novel, some of the mystery is peeled away. Although each chapter begins with a childlike tagline, this is not a children’s book.

The Children's HomeMorgan lives with a housekeeper named Engel, and shortly after she arrives, the outside world begins to penetrate through the gated estate when children inexplicably begin to appear. The first one, named Moira, is left on the steps in a basket:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages.

Even though the number of children grows, it remains a mystery just how they arrive in this walled estate, and then as Morgan stands by the drawing-room window

a square of air above the lawn seemed to ripple as though it were silk and a knife had been drawn across it, and a child appeared on the lawn and began to walk towards the house, perfectly confident it seemed, that she would be received.

The children increase in number, until the house begins to resemble an unofficial orphanage, and there’s something strange about the children–especially a little boy named David who arrives with a cardboard tag tied to his wrist. Morgan notes the children don’t seem quite normal.

“Have you ever noticed.” he said, “that the children seem to know when they’re not wanted, not in the ministerial sense, of course, but, you know, when somebody simply wants to be quiet, I suppose I mean when I want to quiet? They just disappear, they make themselves scare, as though they’ve never been in the house at all, as though they’ve never existed. And then. just when you notice and start to wonder where they are, when you start to worry about them, I suppose, although you might not realize it’s worry, it registers as a sort of apprehension, they reappear as miraculously as they disappeared. They pop up from behind the sofa or you hear them crying or calling things out in the garden. But haven’t you sometimes ever wondered just where they go?” He paused for a moment. When he continued his voice was hesitant. “It’s as though they came from the air,” he said.

Although Morgan doesn’t know it, the arrival of the children signals an end to his chosen isolation. Soon Doctor Crane is called to visit the children, and gradually Morgan is forced back into the world he has chosen to abandon even as the children explore the house and discover secrets Morgan is unaware of. As Morgan is forced to deal with his past, the horrific present arrives and brings catastrophe….

The Children’s Home has an eerie ability to get under one’s skin. It’s a nightmarish tale of dysfunctional families, cruelty, greed, sinister government agencies, and global ruin that starts ever so simply with the appearance of a fairy tale and then expands as Morgan’s chosen isolation drops away. In spite of the way this novel began, I knew that Charles Lambert wasn’t going to give us Mary Poppins but that there was some deeper, much darker play at work. There’s a lot going on in this deeply layered novel, and as Morgan’s horrific secret is gradually revealed with the children accepting their adoptive father for his kindness and loving qualities, we learn that there’s more than one reason to stay behind the high walls of Morgan’s protected estate. Ultimately the novel, which may have difficulty attracting its appropriate audience, makes an irrefutable statement that the measure of any society can be drawn in its attitude towards its children.

Given my fascination with crime novels, The Children’s Home is not my favourite Charles Lambert novel but I shan’t forget it, and it proves what I’ve suspected, that Lambert is capable of a range of work–evident, IMO, in Little Monsters.

Review copy.

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Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

Review copy

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