This is the first in Simon Brett’s series of books The Charles Paris Mysteries. Paris is a professional, but not particularly successful actor, with a history of drinking and womanising. Actually the womanising is historical, the drinking remains current through all the books I’ve listened to, much to the chagrin of his semi-detached wife, Frances and his shark of an agent, Maurice. He stumbles haphazardly into murders with surprising regularity, and through a combination of good (or bad) luck, and general inquisitiveness manages to find himself quite frequently alone with the killer just as the denouement happens.
I discovered thesedramatisations a couple of months ago on Audible. I was looking for a quick and easy listen and my predilection for cosy crime and humour put these at the top of my recommendations.
Within minutes I was absolutely in love with them. The stories are relatively uncomplicated as whodunnits but the dialogue is fabulous, clever and witty in a way that is increasingly hard to find these days.
As good asit is, though, an undeniable element in the almost addictive power of these plays is Bill Nighy. I started out already a huge fan of his work – I have yet to find anything that I dislike him in – but his performance and characterisation of Charles Paris is just perfection. In fact if I didn’t have to do productive things with my life I could just drop on my sofa right now and give over an entire day to the man’s genius.
It was certainly enough to send me scurrying off to my Audible account to buy some discounted credits, and – after listening to a couple of stories in random order – seek out the first and start working through them in order.
Though it’s not essential to listen to or read them chronologically, the complex relationship between Paris and his Semi-Detached wife, and their mutual relationship with their daughter (who they love) and their son-in-law (who they don’t love) is easier to follow if you do.
If you buy one audiobook this year make it one of these.
In which a prose reader trips lightly through the serried pages of a poetry anthology in search of her better self.
Poetry seems to be like Marmite, people are either 100% in or they can’t bear it. It’s real ‘love or loathe’ territory. Occasionally, though, you get the odd ones, like me, who like it with cheese on toast, but not on it’s own or with eggs. The Marmite¹, not the poetry. Not that I’m excluding you if you only like to read poetry whilst eating cheese on toast. On the other hand if eat Marmite with eggs, reading poetry or not, you need to take a good hard look at your life.
Where was I?
Right, so, whilstI have never been much of a poetry reader there is poetry I love (Ozymandius, pretty much any of Eliot’s Practical Cats, The Smuggler’s Song), and there are poets I have read extensively: Kipling. Pam Ayres… A.A.Milne², kind of, but occasionally I find myself envying serious poetry readers just a little bit.
Poetry just seems to be so much more…profound. More esoteric, enigmatic. There’s a sense that it is somehow more honest or pure. Part of that stems from the position of poetry as the original medium for storytelling. Back in the days of the oral tradition rhythm & rhyme made it easier for bards, and keepers of the tradition to remember the thousands of tales and songs and parables that they had to know, so poetry reaches back into the shrouded mists of human evolution to a time that quite literally pre-dates the written word. By comparison the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein’s Monster, was written a measly two hundred years ago, and the first fully-fictional detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, only a hundred and seventy seven. Prose is still in junior school buzzing on the blue slushies and laughing at Johnny farting the alphabet.
Probably it’s this arcane antecedence that gives poetry this abstruse and recherché quality, or maybe poets just write from a purer and less constructed part of their soul, deliberately reaching for the undeliberated, but certainly poetry readers seem to get more from their texts than I generally get from my intricately constructed mass-market, pulp-fiction crime and fantasy books. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong a good story, I love them. Also, I’m a demon deconstructor. I can find nuance in an Andrex ad³. I can read into even the most superficial texts and find something more, but…poetry just seems to start with more. More elan. More merit. More worth. It’s like comparing Kenco instant coffee to coffee beans shat out by a Palm Civet. You love the Kenco, it tastes good, and it gives you the coffee buzz that you want but even though you know that paying ten times as much for pooped out coffee has to be a con, you can’t help wondering if – maybe – the drinkers know something you don’t: maybe you are missing out. And there’s only one way to find out.
I’m going to find out if the Civet shit coffee tastes amazing*: I’m going to start reading poetry.
As a childmy mother would read to me from The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and I loved it but I remember very clearly how we seemed to get stuck on half a dozen of the two or three hundred poems it contained. It may have slipped past you up there ^ but I’m not the most adventurous poetry reader. I like what I like. So to remove the risk of me heading straight for my bolt-holes, and ensure variety in my reading I have handed all responsibility over to Allie Esiri, editor of A Poem For Every Night of the Year. There are no choices to be made with this book. You open it every night to the appropriate date and read whatever poem Allie has chosen for you. It’s perfect. I’m going to read it, and I’m going to tell you about it along the way. Not everyday, that would be tedious, and I’d probably get sued by the publishers for laying out their entire product for you to look up online for free, but occasionally, when I feel I have something to actually say.
¹This is a lie. For the record I love Marmite in all bread-related scenarios, and even as an additive to non-bread related cooking.
²If Now We Are Six can be considered ‘extensive’.
³Andrex is bought by lovely, joyous, fun, open-hearted people who don’t mind having their homes trashed by hordes of rampaging barbarian puppies. If you want people to think you are that lovely buy Andrex, because: puppies. If you don’t want people to think that you that lovely then you are wrong-minded and should still buy Andrex because: puppies.
On the other hand they stamp puppies onto the paper. You are literally wiping your bum on puppies.
*I’m definitely not, it was a metaphor. Nothing on this planet could get me to put something that has passed through a cat’s rectum into my mouth, and I certainly wouldn’t pay that much for the privilege!
First on the list is Jane Harper’s New book Force of Nature. I loved her debut – The Dry – last year, so I’m excited to see if she’s done as well this time. It’s always a concern of mine that a new author will have a wonderful first book, but then the follow-up will be disappointing.
Back in the days when you could get a publishing contract for just one book, those who only had ‘one book in them’ could still be published without the pressure of being expected to produce more. These days, when publishers want a three book minimum, I have read a few books which have never been well-followed-up. I wonder sometimes how many great books we’re missing out on because the authors can’t produce a second that will at least satisfy the contractual demands of publishers.
After that, some political history.
Feminism is very current, once again, and whilst I am passionate about it I feel that I have never really read enough into it. With that in mind I have devoted a small corner of my personal library to space for books on the subject. So far they have all been recent texts dealing with contemporary issues, so I was very happy indeed to receive this reading copy of Jane Robinson’s book Hearts & Minds. Though the book is new the story it tells is of one of the key moments in the actual advancement of equality.
The Pilgrimage was a six-week march beginning in June 1913, organised by the NUWSS. Groups of women proceeded from one of the three starting points (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Carlisle and Land’s End) and followed a common route to the finally assembly point in London. The purpose of the march was to show the establishment how many women actually wanted the vote – that it was not just a few shouty, brash Suffragettes – and how much they wanted it, and also to explain to other ordinary people why the Suffragists wanted the vote and felt it was so important: meetings were held along the route of the march to that end. The Pilgrimage was not without violence, though it was invariably inflicted on the pilgrims rather than starting with them, but in spite of the best efforts of their detractors to silence and intimidate them on July 26th 1913 50,000 women arrived in Hyde Park. They had made their point.
It is shocking, though unsurprising (most British civil rights movements are ignored by our education system) that this incredible achievement is not taught in schools. Everything I know about the march I know from researching it prior to requesting the book, and that, right there, is why I am so eager to read this. Even those of us who consider themselves ardent feminists have often forgotten or never learned the history of our own movement beyond a few key names and buzzwords. It’s good to see more of the history of the movement finally being brought a wider audience.
My book absorption for 2017. Not as impressive as I would have liked, but there have been some great books in it. I have had the pleasure, this year, of discovering a number of new authors that I have immediately fallen in love with. A couple of whom even had the great decency to already have a good back-catalogue for me to work through!
There were some dark moments this year. Certainly one of the darkest but most compelling books I have ever read, made it onto the list. One or two debut authors, and a couple of returning favourites.
Stand-out names this year for me have been Abir Mukherjee, Jodi Taylor, Jane Harper, Laura Lippman and Ben Aaronovitch and – absolutely not ‘least’ – Adam Kay whose book This Is Hurt Going To Hurt should be required reading for anyone who thinking of criticising the NHS or supporting J.Hunt in his efforts to break it.
It’s Human Rights Day and my favourite illustrator and author Chris Riddell has had hand in producing two books to educate children and Young People about their rights and why they need them. My Little Book Of Big Freedoms should be in every classroom, every library and on every child’s reading list. It should also be on the National Curriculum , as should Here I Stand. Few things in life are more important than understanding how we are protected from evil, except perhaps we need to be, and why those protections need to be universal.
I don’t do DC but Dystopian Dystopia was more than I could resist.
Ok, so I arrived late at this particular game. I’m not the world’s biggest graphic novel reader, and I tend to stick to the independents. I haven’t read anything off the Marvel or D.C. shelves since I was a kid, pushing forty years ago.
It’s not that I don’t like them. I cut my teeth all those decades ago on regular doses of X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but that was back in the days when they were still comics, and fandom didn’t require that you memorised every detail of all of the characters lives and evolutions through different multi-verse manifestations. I can’t be bothered with that shit. Also, I like things a little twisted and, really, superhero books are ultimately all superhero books, no matter how anti-hero the superheroes are.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman and Iron Man: I love X-Men and Wonder Woman, but I’m not really interested in reading my way through the umpteen different series each major character has spawned.
Enter: a customer in the shop one day. He starts rattling on about this alternate DC Universe stuff: a series of books were the nominally twisted world of DC becomes even more twisted and warped. Where Wonder Woman is at war with Aquaman and half of Europe has been sunk. A universe SO twisted that when the Waynes are held up in the alley – it’s not Thomas and Martha that are killed, and so it’s not Bruce that becomes Batman…
Well, I was never going to resist something that twisted and warped and now, two books in, I’m spending as much time researching all the stuff I missed by not reading all those comic-books as I am actually reading the comic-books!
Anyway, long story short: These story lines are fantastic, and if you like DC, and you like twisted you should definitely be reading them.
Half hearted ‘cyber thriller’ isn’t very ‘cyber’ and fails to really ‘thrill’
Written in the first person I Am No One is the account of recent events in the life of the fictional NY academic, Jeremy O’Keefe. O’Keefe, ironically an expert in surveillance, finds himself the subject of apparent scrutiny by unknown observers, a discovery that propels him into paranoia and pushes him to the boundaries of sanity. As the story is unpacked, page by page, it becomes clear that O’Keefe’s paranoia is not unfounded, and that his initial confusion as to why anyone would want to bother observing the behaviour of a mundane and only moderately successful Professor actually belies a deeper understanding of the cause and his actions that precipitated it.
O’Keefe is a difficult character to really sympathise with. Whilst his ideology is admirably egalitarian he falls into that bracket of slightly stuffy, middle-class liberals who take themselves too seriously and fail to practise what they preach. In fairness to O’Keefe he largely has the grace and self-awareness to question the rationality of his fears and accidental moments of prejudice (though he is of the very typical male Liberal variety that doesn’t seem to recognise the contradiction of professing himself feminist whilst watching porn): slightly pompous, slightly too much self-regard slightly too much sense of victimhood, he is not unlikeable just a bit of a non-entity. Whilst this is clearly intentional it makes his narrative stodgy. Not unreadable, but at the same time easy to put down for a week whilst a more engaging book is read. This is either a spectacularly adept piece of characterisation or an unfortunate reflection of the author, Patrick Flanery. I do hope it is the writing because if not then all the peculiar, inaccurate and unlikely observations made by O’Keefe on behalf of his character regarding differences between the British and Americans are likely also Flanery’s. For example the breath-taking assertion that socio-economic failure is treated more harshly in the UK than in the US, when any basic knowledge of sociology in the two countries shows that the criteria for failure is a) much broader in the US and b) responded to far more harshly, e.g.: “if you don’t earn enough from your three jobs to afford medical insurance to pay for your cancer treatment, you clearly haven’t worked hard enough. The fault is yours , you are a failure and the punishment is premature death.”. It is also difficult to accept that Flanery is regularly treated with distrust and dislike by bank cashiers for his Irish name. Quite aside from anything else most bank cashiers in this country now aren’t old enough to remember the Irish troubles, and the bigots-for-bigotry’s-sake have long since transferred their angst from the Irish to the Poles and the Muslims.
Flanery is also an academic, something that is abundantly obvious from the highly structured writing method he employs in this book. The reader is left with the impression that where other novelists write books to be read as stories Flanery has written a text with an eye to future deconstruction by English Lit students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but occasionally one wishes he could have been a little less concerned with construction in the minutiae and more concerned with crafting a story with a complete beginning, middle and end: and therein lies one of the greatest failings of this book: it has no real conclusion. Questions are raised that go unanswered. In particular there are issues with characters, whose true identity may never be elaborated upon or, in the case of his girlfriend who makes a sudden, poorly explained behavioural volte-face that is entirely out of character but provides Flanery with a device to enable his protagonist take the critical closing step to the tale.
It seems that Flanery has written this book as a parable on the dangers of unfettered digital surveillance: how easy it is for those who wish to to access all our personal data and how very quickly and efficiently lives can be subverted. Whilst this may be a revelation to a few it has to be said that there is nothing revealed in this book about the scope and methods of data collection that anyone who has even a small amount of technical savvy won’t already know, which rather undermines it as an expose. The book also attempts to portray how easy it is to suddenly and unintentionally find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately in this story the actions which purport to have landed O’Keefe in possible criminality are so ridiculous and far-fetched that only the most paranoid would ever see an offence in them. Contrary to highlighting the ease with which the well intentioned can unwittingly find themselves in need of lawyers it suggests that all the peripheral characters are actually far more paranoid and delusional than O’Keefe will ever be
Aged Like A Chip-Shop Vinegar Rather Than A Fine Wine
If you want murder mystery this is probably not the book for you – the body doesn’t appear until very late in the book. That is not to says there isn’t mystery to be tackled, simply that there is a notable shortage of bodies in libraries, as it were. Which is surprising as the story is set between Cambridge University and a contemporaneously typical Old Country House which surely must have had perfectly good library offering oodles of potential for simply dozens of bodies. Sadly this was an opportunity completely over-looked by Miss Austen-Leigh.
Which is a shame because it almost certainly would have made it a more appealing read.
I wanted to love this book. I loved the main character Prudence. I loved her name. I loved her independence. I loved the way she freely cursed whenever she felt like it, despite being a Bishop’s Daughter. I loved the setting. I loved the idea of smuggling. But then there was the rest of the book.
It is expected, when reading books from another era, to have to make allowances for the social norms and prejudices of the time, and I am very good at that. Golden Era crime is one of my favourite, and most-read genres. I am used to making those allowances. But this time I found I just couldn’t get past how deeply steeped the story was in a very narrow social and moral ideology , and how dated and exclusive the expression of those ideas was. The whole concept, for example, of judging someone to be upstanding and reliable based on the understanding of what type of ‘hunter’ they are is so archaic that it is rendered laughable in the worst way.
There are many books that are, and feel, dated but which maintain a literary integrity because they are solid, well-written and well plotted. So their antiquity becomes not only forgivable but remains a quintessential part of their nature. Unfortunately in the case of The Incredible Crime the distance in time seems to have just emphasised the books position as a froth piece. As a result things that may have been forgivable in other cases (making up a drug and the side-effects of it that you then don’t have to name) serve to make the story, and by extension the characters and their values seem silly and trite. Although the fact that they are silly and trite also contributes to that impression. Where most of it’s contemporaries, whilst being very distinctly products of their time, manage to remain largely on the side of ‘historically charming’ this book serves as a rather brutal reminder of the classism, sexism and elitism that most of us are glad to have left behind.
Having said all of that, once I’d got to grips with the fact that a body wasn’t appearing any time soon, and the outrageously chauvinistic social mores I found that there was a reasonably engaging mystery to be cracked. I am sure that there are many people out there who will enjoy this and be able to ignore all the bits that made me twitch. I, sadly am still twitching.
Beautifully rendered story chronicling the awful collision between events past and present for a newly inaugurated District Attorney.
Thank you to Andrew at Faber & Faber for the ARC. This book was the first in a run of a fantastic half dozen or so that I read back-to-back – either ARC’s or proofs – and that were all compulsive reading.
OK – so my first admission here is that, although I read a lot of crime I have somehow managed to remain completely oblivious to the (quite large!) body of work from Ms. Lippman!
That said the, fact that there exists such a body to give evidence to her long experience as a writer goes someway to explaining the smooth skill with which the story of newly-appointed State’s Attorney, Lu Brandt, is unpackaged and delivered to the reader.
The story is told in a combination of first- and third-person relating current and past events. I found this a slightly odd and unsettling, though effective, way to use the voice of the narrator, and I was constantly bothered by who was narrating in the third-person sequences.
Lu Brandt, scion of a former and legendary State’s Attorney , grew up in the experimental new town of Columbia, in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake. For me she is one of the most realistic characters I have ever read, and I feel a strong empathy for the child Lu in the historic sequences, though she was far smarter than I ever was! Her mother’s death early in Lu’s life, her father’s immersion in his job and the age gap between Lu and her older brother left the precocious Lu with the feeling of always being an outsider in her own life, yet one with a unique and largely over-looked position from which to view the events of all their lives. In childhood this externalism simply confused her: as an adult she misconstrues it as casual and unintentional neglect – nothing she can’t overcome or forgive with an adult’s perspective. Gradually, though, she begins to feel there may have more deliberation behind it.
The plotline is simple: The first case to land on Lu’s desk in her new job is a mundane but nasty murder. Directing the police to be more thorough than her predecessor demanded Lu finds occasional links back to her earlier life in Colombia. At first these seem like nothing more than the kind of inter-connection of lives that is to be expected in small town, but the further she digs the closer to home the connections appear to come, and her earlier childhood observations begin to take on a more menacing cast.
This is not an original format or even a particularly uncommon story but it is in the details and the delivery that Lippman’s skill is brought to bear. The steady rhythm with which the facts and fictions, truth and lies are laid before the reader; the characters, who are developed from bright-eyed high-schoolers, through college and into more cynical middle-age; the events that carry those same characters to that darker stage of their lives – all of these aspects of the story are delivered with a style and depth that make this one of the most thoroughly engaging books I have read this year.
A trip through the modern NHS in easy and accessible anecdotes.
On the surface of it this is an engaging and often hilarious collection of anecdotes from someone who worked as a doctor in the NHS for several years. There is an abundance of stories for those who love to hear about the quirks and peculiarities of humanity. Dark and funny things that will make you laugh out loud whilst simultaneously making your toes curl. The de-gloved penis. The dehydrated cocaine users. The homeless man who preferred to go back out on the streets rather than run the risk of MRSA.
Referring to the diaries he was obliged to keep during his years as an obstetrician, Kay has pulled together a raft of stories and thoughts ranging from simple one line ‘notes-to-self’ to more lengthy tales of patients he cared for.
The happy, the funny and the occasional simply uplifting make for an easy and read that clips along nicely. I had this in audio book form and it was a little over six hours long. It is easy to pick up, slightly less easy to put down.
You may also have seen this book referred to as ‘heart-breaking’.
And it is. Because in writing a highly entertaining memoir Kay has found the perfect vehicle to deliver some brutal truths about the state of our NHS these days. To highlight the lies being peddled by the Secretary of State for Health and the government.
This is not a treatise on the issues facing the National Health Service and the people who work there-in delivering health care, there is no lengthy analysis – he simply punctuates the usually funny, sometimes tragic stories with brutal realities he has experienced first-hand:
Being told that he would have to come back for a weekend halfway through a two-week holiday abroad because the cover he had had to arrange himself fell through;
Falling asleep in his car in the hospital car park before he even managed to start it and waking up the next morning only to find he’d slept so long he was still late for work. On Christmas Eve;
Working out that with the unpaid overtime he was expected to put in his actual wage was £6.60ph – less than if he’d worked in McDonalds.
This is far more important book than it is really given credit for. I would recommend this book for everyone who loves stories about the peculiarities of people, and it’s a must read for all those who love the NHS. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever nodded their head when Jeremy Hunt’s lips have been flapping.