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Archive for the tag “reviews”

The Anatomy School (book review)

The Anatomy SchoolThe Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.

At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.

The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.

After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.

It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.

One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.

On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.

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Blood on the Tongue — an above-average whodunit

Blood On The Tongue (Ben Cooper & Diane Fry, #3)Blood On The Tongue by Stephen Booth

An above-average whodunit.

Set in the Peak District of Derbyshire in England (which I have never been to), I kept thinking of the setting as similar to that of the detective novels of Peter Robinson with his detective Alan Banks, set just a bit further north in Yorkshire.

But unlike the Alan Manks series, and most other crimy mystery novels nowadays, the protagonis in this one is a junior officer, a mere Detective Constable, and not an inspector or chief inspector. He also is peculiar in not having lots of hangups and problems. He isn’t an alcoholic, nor is he going though a messy divorce. His biggest decision is whether to move to town to be closer to his work.

The novel also poses some interesting questions about life in general, I rather liked this one on “community”, in the mouth of one of the characters:

(Community) isn’t something real, though. Is it? It’s a word that we use in the titles of reports. Community liaison. Working with the community. Understanding the ethnic community. It’s a word, Ben. It’s not something you actually live in, not these days.

So if you enjoy crime fiction, this one is worth a look.

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A ship posessed (book review)

A Ship Possessed, ValueA Ship Possessed, Value by Alton Gansky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My eye lit on the title of a book in the library, Vanished and so I looked again, it appealed to my sense of mystery. But then I saw it was II in a series, so I looked at the books on either side, and saw this one. So I took it out and began to read it. It’s a sort of mystery-suspense-horror story, with both bodily and spiritual villains.

I very much like the novels of Charles Williams, whose works have been described as spiritual thrillers, and have often wished that someone else would write books in the same genre. I wondered if this might be such a book, but it isn’t, not really. I don\t know if Alton Gansky intended to write in that genre, but I suspect not, though at times there are echoes of it. In some ways it is a bit closer to the writings of Frank Peretti, though quite a bit better than those. But those who like Peretti’s books might like this one.

It’s not a bad book, and an entertaining read, but Williams it isn’t.

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The dust that falls from dreams

The Dust that Falls from DreamsThe Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The centenary of the First World War seems to be inspiring quite a number of novels about that conflict and the effects it had on people. In this case it is three upper-middle class families living in Eltham, near London, whose children were quite close friends in childhood.

Since no one now living and writing really has much memory of that period, most of the recent crop must be classed as historical novels, and the authors are imagining what it must have been like. When I was at school, about 60 years ago, I read a similar novel, I think the title was The flowers of the forest — I can’t remember the author’s name. The abiding impression it made on me was the number of young women whose boyfriends and husbands were killed, though many of them succumbed to the influenza epidemic that followed the war.

This book has the same theme, and shows how families coped with such losses, or failed to do so. What I liked about this one was the characters and their interactions, sometimes witty, sometimes cruel. They are all different, and respond in different ways to what happens to them.

The edition I read was a proof edition, and so it still had some rough edges, and they may have been corrected in the final published version. There were anachronisms of language — people being “devastated” and “bonkers” about their losses, for example. Perhaps a proofreader caught those. And the RFC pilot who as a child ran around roaring like an aeroplane in 1902, when the first powered flight was only in the following year. There were also some inconsistencies in the ages of the characters, which, again, I hope were picked up by the proofreaders.

Some things were very true to the period — the way many people visited spiritualist mediums, for example. The one in the book is a minor character, but nevertheless an interesting one.

A good read … I wasn’t sure whether to give it 3 or 4 stars, but in the end gave it three. .

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Secret Africa by Lawrence G.; Green (book review)

Secret AfricaSecret Africa by Lawrence George Green

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading or re-reading quite a lot of books by Lawrence George Green lately, mainly because of my interest in family and local history, and I’ve been compiling an index to some of them. He is, or was, a raconteur and teller of travellers tales, which are often interesting and entertaining, if not always accurate. He was a journalist, and his books often read like a collection of newspaper features, which they probably are. He sometimes recycles stories, so that they appear in more than one of his books.

Secret Africa is one of his earlier books, and was rather disappointing. It was written before the Second World War, and reprinted in 1974, I thought I might index it, but discovered that there is nothing much worth indexing. Some chapters read like a lazy journalist’s rewrites of press releases, the sort of advertorials one sometimes sees on TV. The only thing interesting about them was that they are 80 years old, so one gets a view of a different period. The title, Secret Africa is misleading. There is nothing secret about most of it, it’s just PR stuff that people want you to know.

Even the more personal chapters — a description of a trip to Mauritius, for example — have the feeling of plugging a message from the sponsor, and are full of racism and snobbery as well.

The final chapter, a description of gold mining in Johannesburg, is full of statistics, so that it reads in places like a company report — how many tons of ore it takes to produce an ounce of gold, how much bars of gold were worth, how much it cost to sink a shaft, and of course the marvelous accommodation, food, recreational and healthcare facilities provided by the benevolent mining companies for their native mineworkers. Perhaps I’m unduly cynical about this, because at the same time I’ve been reading the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu by their daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, which describes how they helped to organise a miners’ strike to protest against the poor housing, pay, food and all the other stuff that Green praises from the PR blurb.

Lawrence George Green‘s best work was written in the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier and later work seems to be dreck. This one definitely falls into that category. It seems to have been written before he hit his stride, and in the later ones he seems to be coasting on empty.

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Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

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Thunder on the Blaauwberg

Thunder on the BlaauwbergThunder on the Blaauwberg by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title “Blood Royal”, is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.

So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I’ve covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, “Hauptmann Schottland”. Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.

I’ve read several of Lawrence G. Green’s books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours — stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn’t focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.

As I said at the beginning, some of Green’s stories, like the “Blood Royal” one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.

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Murder in Mykonos

Murder In Mykonos. Jeffrey Siger (Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery)Murder In Mykonos. Jeffrey Siger by Jeffrey Siger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A readable and exciting whodunit.

Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of Mykonos in the Aegean, from investigating murders to being a nursemaid to tourists is not an exciting prospect. But soon there is a report of a dead body, found in the crypt of a rural church, apparently of a young woman. The case becomes more urgent when another young woman, a tourist, disappears, and it appears that the police on Mykonos have a serial killer to look for.

But there are political complications. The mayor of Mykonos does not want the news of the investigation to leak out — nothing must be allowed to frighten away the tourists on whom Mykonos’s prosperity depends, When the police start to trace the movements of the murdered girl, and those who last saw her alive, there seem to be too many suspects, and at a crucial point in the investigation, most of the suspects disappear without trace.

There are a few plot holes and discrepancies in the story, but none of them serious enough to get in the way of enjoying a good read, if you like crime fiction.

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The Waves (book review)

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is different from most novels. It’s about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it says little about their external circumstances. It is told entirely from the viewpoints of the people concerned, and is an internal description of how their friends and life affect them.

Describing it like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a story. Seeing the world through six pairs of eyes, moving from one viewpoint to the other, sounds as though it will be like living in six separate boxes, but it isn’t. It is a marvellous evocation of friendship. The trouble is that it is so evocative that my mind kept wandering, every paragraph at least, if not every sentence. When it describes the feelings of one character when leaving school, I was taken back to when I left school, aznd got so absorbed in the vivid recollection that I must have remained stuck on the same page for about 20 minutes or so,

It was the the same with the description of their leaving university, and I was taken back 46 years (gosh, was it as long ago as that) when I took the train from Grahamstown to Alicedale, and waited on Alicedale station for the train to Johannesburg, and the realisation suddenly struck me that I would never be a full-time student again. I hadn’t been a student all the time before, but even working for two years full time I was still saving up to go to university, and suddenly it was all over. And Virginia Woolf captures that “it’s all over” feeling brilliantly. To one character it’s a drop of water gathering and growing, and then suddenly it drops, and life changes, irrevocably.

But at the same time there is a continuity. As the characters move from youth to age, so there are interludes describing, quite impersonally, the course of a day, the sun rising and setting over the sea shore, with the waves continuing to crash down, so there is also a repetition, and it reminded me of the verse of Psalm 41/42:

Deep is calling to deep
as your cataracts roar;
all your waves, your breakers
have rolled over me.

Actually there is a seventh friend, Percival, who was at school with the boys. We hear of his unrequited love for Susan, and Neville’s unrequited love for him, and he goes to India and is killed in a fall from a horse. But his viewpoint never appears, he is seen only only through the eyes of the others, and the effects of his life and death on them.

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The Book of Air and Shadows (review)

The Book Of Air And ShadowsThe Book Of Air And Shadows by Michael Gruber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started reading this book I didn’t think I’d like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. But it seemed to improve as it went along, and in the end I rather enjoyed it.

In a way it reminded me of The de Vinci Code in that the characters go running around in search of a myterious artifact, pursued by shadow villains, with secret ciphers that need to be solved. But The book of air ans shadows seems to be better written, and the plot holes are not quite so crass and annoying.

I suppose one of the reasons I found The da Vinci code annoying is that history is my subject, and that book was based on obviously bogus history. In The book of air and shadows the plot revolves around accidentally discovered ancient documents that seem to point to a hitherto unknown play of Shakespeare which might be found if only the coded letters can be deciphered. Perhaps the difference is that I know more about history than I do about Shakespeare and dramatic art generally. I mean I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays and seen some of them performed on stage and screen and found them enjoyable enough but truth to tell I found author Samuel Beckett]’s Waiting for Godot or Jean Genet‘s The Balcony just as enjoyable, if not more so. No doubt this will mark me as a Philistine among the true devotees of Shakespeare, but I’m just saying that this is why my bullshite detectors were more sensitive to The da Vinci code, and if there was similar nonsense in this book, I was less able to detect it.

But The da Vinci code was simply ludicrous. A character who was supposed to be an expert cryptographer could not detect simple mirror writing, and they went on puzzling about it for several pages while the reader is urging them not to be so thick and just get on with it. In The book of air and shadows, by contrast just about every character has a go at deciphering the coded letters, and somehow manage to solve the puzzle with ridiculous ease.

Though there are plot holes, they are not quite as annoying as in some other books, and it is generally better written, and there are some occasional quite astute observations. There are conspiracies, ancient and modern, but the book is not quite so obviously based on a conspiracy theory of history.

There are two main characters: a rich intellectual property lawyer, Jake Mishkin, and a poor book shop assistant, Albert Crosetti, who dreams of being a film director. They only meet about halfway through the book, and the lawyer’s story is told in the first person, while the film fan’s is told in the third person. At one point after they have met they are discussing movies and life, and Mishkin is interested in Crosetti’s view that movies really determine our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what is real.

‘surely not,’ Mishkin objected. ‘Surely it’s the other way around — filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.’

‘No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street of a Western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It’s the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real Old West. They were heavy and expensive and no one but an idiot would wear one in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional Western gunslingers. And it’s not just thugs. Movies shape everyone’s reality, to the extent that it’s shaped by human action — foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it’s movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We’ve all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment whem resistance turns to passion. He’s seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.’

It’s bits like that that make the book worth reading, and that particular bit reminded me of Jean Genet‘s The balcony.

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