Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

KYD: Yellow Game - Claims for various cards

I finished a few books over the last week that I can use towards the cards that have already been identified:


Claiming the card for John Watson


I'm using the Norman biography for this. Not only do the author's initial feature in "Watson" but the subject or main character in this "biography" (using the term loosely), i.e. ACD, was a bona fide doctor:


Claiming the card for Run Over By A Carriage


I'm using Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs for this one as it satisfies the "written by an English woman author".


Claiming the card for The Hob


Naomi Alderman's The Power is both set in the future and in a dystopian world.

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Norman's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those books that got off to a rocky start with me and I should have DNF'd after the Preface. 


However, I wanted to know how preposterous the book could actually get, or, ever so hopeful, if the premise set forth in the Preface was just an unlucky and sensationalist choice of "bait" that would be abandoned in the course of Norman's investigation of ACD's life. 


As I don't want to string anyone along, the book did not improve after page 11, which is where the Preface ended. In fact, if anything it got worse. So, if you plan to read on this short collection of thoughts about Norman's biography of ACD, you're in for a bit of a rant.


To recap, the Preface of the book seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in such ridiculous concepts as spiritualism and fairies, and the last paragraph of the Preface suggested that Norman's conclusion was that Doyle must have suffered from a mental illness:

Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This was the in Preface! I don't know about other readers, but unless I am reading an academic text where the expectation is that the conclusion is summarised in the prefacing abstract, I am not looking to have the author's assumptions stated as facts on page 11 (!) of what I would hope to be a gripping biography of an extraordinary personality. 


Strike 1!


Next we get two (yes, TWO!) short chapters on Doyle's childhood, which are mostly pre-occupied with his the difficulties that his family had to cope with - mostly his father's alcoholism. There is, in fact, little about young Arthur in these chapters.


Following this we get no less than ten (TEN!) chapters about Sherlock Holmes. Not just about the writing and publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories but actual interpretation of Sherlock as a character - all substantiated with apparently randomly selected quotes from the different stories. 


Seriously? A book that carries the subtitle of "Beyond Sherlock Holmes" should not focus on the one topic that the subtitle seems to exclude. What is more, there are only 25 chapters in this book in total. Norman has spent 10 of them on Holmes. That is preposterous. 


Strike 2!


Luckily, we get back to ACD after this with a brief run down of his involvement in actual criminal cases, where he managed to prove vital in overturning two miscarriages of justice, and his work and life during and after the First World War. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing new or detailed in this, and the focus and ACD is superficial. Norman uses these chapters to write about ACD's father's illness and time in various mental institutions, surmising at what kind of psychiatric condition he suffered from. This, however, can only be guesswork on Norman's part. Charles Conan Doyle was hospitalised privately. There are few actual medical records. What is more,even if there had been medical records, the areas of psychiatry and medical treatment of addiction or mental illness in the 1890s was still in its infancy. The recording and diagnosis of cases of people who had been hospitalised or committed can hardly be described as reliable. And yet, Norman, with the help of The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (by Michael Gelder, Paul Harrison, and Philip Cohen) dares to presume to make a diagnosis of what illness may have plagued Charles Conan Doyle, and has the audacity to infer that Arthur Conan Doyle may have inherited the same potential for mental illness because in one of his works he wrote that he knew, rather than believed, that fairies existed!


What utter, utter rubbish!


And, btw, I kid you not, but the The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry is referenced throughout the relevant chapters as the ONLY source to back-up Norman's ideas.




Never mind that spiritualism was an actual thing in the early 1900s and that ACD was not alone in believing in fairies and magic and the paranormal. Instead of investigating ACD's interest, Norman's work in this book is not just superficial but outright lazy. He simply regurgitates the same outrage and disbelief over how a man of sound mind can belive in something fantastic. With this book, Norman simply jumps on the gravy train of sensationalism and continues an outcry over the notion that an author of fiction may have believed in something other than hard facts.


I can't even...


Fuck this book. (Note: This is Strike 3!)


Seriously, I have no idea what Norman's other books are like, but he seems to have written several other biographies featuring Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Robert Mugabe (seriously???), and others. 


None of which will ever end up on my reading list.


Reading progress update: I've read 29%.

The Bette Davis Club - Jane Lotter

“Does Georgia golf?” I say.

“Yeah, she loves it. That and a few other vices.”

I didn’t know Georgia golfs, nor can I imagine what her other vices might be. I realize I know next to nothing about my niece. All day long I’ve been picturing the thirteen-year-old shy lass I saw in New York some years back, but the reality seems closer to a redheaded, vodka-swilling sex kitten, wielding a five iron.

Jane Lotter - The Bette Davis Club

The Power

The Power - Naomi Alderman

The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent and the only important thing was - could you and your kin jolt harder? But we don't act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we've based our ideas on.

Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there.

One of the most written-about books of 2017, and hailed as a modernised version of The Handmaid's Tale, I had very low expectations of The Power. I'm not a fan of dystopian fiction and I tend to avoid hyped-up books like the plague.

However, I am a sucker for a great cover and so this ended up on my shelves.


The biggest surprise was that I found quite a lot about this book that held great promise:


I loved the epistolary exchange between the two authors, Naomi and Neil, at the beginning and end of this book. 


I loved the idea that the rise of the women was not due to a freak accident or a mutation, but was based on a power that had been there all along but had been, for want of a better word, forgotten. 


I loved that Alderman based so much of her novel on current events. 


I loved that there were male characters that were not horrible human beings. Well, okay, there was just one. But ... that is still one more than in many of Atwood's books.


I loved the snarky tone of Alderman's writing. Some of the dialogues and inner monologues was funny enough to make me smirk. Dripping with sarcasm, but it did make me smirk. 


Where the book fell flat, however, was that once the premise had been established, the story didn't seem to go anywhere. Or not anywhere new. It just seemed to follow the same old path of mayhem and carnage that had already been established by both the MaddAddam trilogy and Butler's Parable of the Sower. In fact, the insertion of Biblical tone and phrases reminded me a lot of Parable of the Sower, and the fight scenes reminded so much of MaddAddam that I spent the second half of the book wishing it would end. This had already been done, and done better. 


I really hoped that maybe, just maybe, this novel would have had the guts to dare to imagine the rebuilding of society after an apocalyptic event - the cataclysm in this book.

There are hints of this at the end of this book, but the story ends before it gets to develop this aspect. All we get is another iteration of Lord Acton's adage that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." 


So, while I really enjoyed the political side of this book that seeks to hold up a mirror to society with respect to the differential treatment of men and women, the execution of the actual story as a whole was disappointing.  

Reading progress update: I've read 294 out of 340 pages.

The Power - Naomi Alderman

I need this book to end. Tonight. I already look forward to reading something else.

Reading progress update: I've read 11 out of 192 pages.

Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

This is not off to a good start.


The Preface seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in spiritualism and fairies.


I was hoping for a relatively objective biography that would explore different areas of ACD's life - he was an interesting person!


And then I got the last paragraph of the Preface!

"My investigations led me to conclude that Doyle's father had suffered not only from alcoholism and epilepsy, as has previously been described, but more importantly from a serious mental illness. Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This is just bad. And this is the Preface!!!


This may end up being one of the fastest DNF's in the history of my reading (although, nothing will beat the English translation of Olivier Todd's biography of Albert Camus that sucked so much that I had to abandon it at the Translator's Note.)


I Stopped Time

I Stopped Time - Jane    Davis

She span away from me, a sleek starling becoming one with the swirling, churning mass. Something in the way she moved - her hands raised above her head to part the crowd - made me wish I had a camera to frame her, just as she was. I blinked and, in that instant, it was as if I was experiencing a flashback, although I knew it wasn’t a memory of anything I had experienced. That was the moment I became a photographer.

Apparently, I bought this book in 2014. I remember nothing. It's been lingering on my kindle ever since and if I hadn't been looking for a book with a certain cover to fulfil one of the tasks for the Kill Your Darlings game, it would have been left unread for even longer. 


I Stopped Time really was a rare find. Having known nothing about it when I started the book, the stories of Lottie and James quickly drew me in: James is a former politician who was "disgraced" and forced to resign when a low-life paper covered his involvement with a rent boy. However, James story really begins when he learns that his estranged mother has passed away at the age of 108 and left him with forty-two boxes of, mostly, photographs.


With the help of Jenny, a young art student, James begins a journey of discovering his mother's story by examining the photographs. 


Lottie was James mother. She had reasons for leaving the family when James was still a toddler, and the reason is kept from the reader until very late in the story, until we have had a chance to get to know Lottie from her early childhood in Brighton in the early 1900s, through her formative years as a famous photographer in the 1920s, and in her old age in the late 1980s.


I mentioned in an earlier update that the story dragged a little in the middle. I no longer hold that criticism. It had to drag. We had to have time to learn about Lottie in so much detail. By taking us through Lottie's everyday life during and shortly after the First World War, Jane Davis makes us look at both labels and defiance. We follow Lottie as she learns who she is, and by doing so we get to see how identity is shaped (or not) by events and family. 

Reading progress update: I've read 70%.

I Stopped Time - Jane    Davis

The first third of the book was great, the second third has dragged on quite a bit, tho.

I hope the last third will pull the meandering story back together without forcing too many solutions.

Reading progress update: I've read 30%.

Five Little Pigs - Agatha Christie

Fortunately, in the course of his career, Hercule Poirot had made friends in many counties. Devonshire was no exception. He sat down to review what resources he had in Devonshire. As a result he discovered two people who were acquaintances or friends of Mr Meredith Blake. He descended upon him therefore armed with two letters, one from Lady Mary Lytton-Gore, a gentle widow lady of restricted means, the most retiring of creatures; and the other from a retired Admiral, whose family had been settled in the county for four generations.

WooHoo! A nod to Lady Mary of Three Act Tragedy!


Reading progress update: I've read 16%.

Five Little Pigs - Agatha Christie

Meredith was what my contemporaries used to call Namby Pamby. Liked botany and butterflies and observing birds and beasts. Nature study they call it nowadays. Ah, dear—all the young people were a disappointment to their parents.


It already looks like Dame Agatha had fun with this one, too. Hehe.

And it appears this will be a character-driven story. 

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

Five Little Pigs - Agatha Christie

Sir Montague shrugged his shoulders.

‘Don’t ask me. Of course, she was fond of the fellow. Broke her all up when she came to and realized what she’d done. Don’t believe she ever rallied from the shock.’

‘So in your opinion she was guilty?’

Depleach looked rather startled. He said: ‘Er—well, I thought we were taking that for granted.’

‘Did she ever admit to you that she was guilty?’

Depleach looked shocked. ‘Of course not—of course not. We have our code, you know. Innocence is always—er—assumed.

Erm, it looks like I'm having a Poirot week. This is # 3. Oh, well, ...



Reading progress update: I've read 20%.

I Stopped Time - Jane    Davis

I think this is one of these rare finds ... a random kindle purchase that has been lingering on my shelf for 4 years and that has so far managed to draw me in completely. 


Told from two POVs - one from Lottie and one from her son, Sir James - told nearly 100 years apart. I'm really enjoying the web of mystery that is being woven - How did Lottie end up as a photographer? Why did she abandon her family? How come Sir James never knew his mother was still alive, when she must have known where he lived? 


I hope the books manages to keep my interest right up to the end of the book. 

Reading progress update: I've read 66%.

Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie

She opened the morning-room door, and Bob shot through like a suddenly projected cannon-ball.

‘Who is it? Where are they? Oh, there you are. Dear me, don’t I seem to remember—’ sniff—sniff—sniff—prolonged snort. ‘Of course! We have met!’

‘Hullo, old man,’ I said. ‘How goes it?’

Bob wagged his tail perfunctorily. ‘Nicely, thank you. Let me just see—’ he resumed his researches. ‘Been talking to a spaniel lately, I smell. Foolish dogs, I think. What’s this? A cat? That is interesting. Wish we had her here. We’d have rare sport. H’m—not a bad bull-terrier.’

Having correctly diagnosed a visit I had lately paid to some doggy friends, he transferred his attention to Poirot, inhaled a noseful of benzine and walked away reproachfully. 

Aaaaah, gotta love Bob. 


KYD: Yellow Game - Claim for Victim # 1 (Ariadne Oliver)

I'm not very good at writing reviews at the moment - a bit of a slump, I guess. But I did finish Cards on the Table (featuring the fabulous Ariadne Oliver) earlier today (yesterday, strictly speaking), so I am claiming the card for Ariadne Oliver, who has already been identified as Victim #1.

Reading progress update: I've read 40%.

Cards on the Table - Agatha Christie

Mrs Lorrimer is one of those women who play bridge at bridge clubs all day. Women like that must be made of armour-plating—they can look after themselves all right!

This book was a really good choice to lighten up with - murder aside, Ariadne Oliver is on top form in this one.

Reading progress update: I've read 27%.

Cards on the Table - Agatha Christie

Ariadne Oliver is Dame Agatha's alter ego, and Dame Agatha had tons of fun with her:

‘I enjoyed your last, Mrs Oliver,’ said Superintendent Battle kindly. ‘The one where all the Chief Constables were shot simultaneously. You just slipped up once or twice on official details. I know you’re keen on accuracy, so I wondered if—’

Mrs Oliver interrupted him.

‘As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.

What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something—and then they’re killed first. That always goes down well. It comes in all my books—camouflaged different ways, of course.



Currently reading

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Progress: 25%
The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome by Pam Hirsch
Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell
Progress: 25/256pages
Women and the Vote: A World History by Jad Adams
Progress: 16/528pages
The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter
Progress: 48%
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 39%