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

The War that Ended Peace - Reading updates

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 - Margaret MacMillan

I meant to read this book in 2014, but may have gotten side-tracked with other books about WWI in that year...


I'll keep a running post for reading updates for this book as it will encompass too much information to deal with in one post and I would like to keep notes while reading - and I would like to keep the notes in one place.



Chapter 1 - Europe in 1900:


Good points so far: 


MacMillan tries to set the scene by introducing the reader to Europe and the world of the early 1900 by giving an overview of different aspects of life: politics, economics, art, social issues, interaction between different nations - not just the European nations that would be immediately connected with the First World War, but also relationships with Asia, America, Africa, and between the different colonies. 

I am missing an overview of the relations to the different parts of the Ottoman empire and Russia but as far as providing an introduction is concerned this is a good overview, including some statistics (unusually for me, but I hope there are more of them).


All in all, so far a much more levelled, engaging, and multi-faceted approach to the subject than The Guns of August.


Questions and Issues:


It may be because this was an introductory chapter, but the tone of the chapter was quite general. I hope this develops in depth and complexity as the book goes on.

Reading progress update: I've read 3 out of 288 pages.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America - Thomas King

"History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They're not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment."

I needed some history with bite after my last book. Not that dinosaurs have no bite, but I definitely needed something a bit more serious.

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

He was calm and soothing and had a reasonable explanation for everything. No woman should have to put up with that.

‘Well, answer me this. How did she get free in the first place?’

‘I let her go.’

I took a deep breath. He took a step backwards. People were edging out of the pod.

‘Hold on. Before you go up like the Professor’s manure heap, I had to let her go.’

I would have raised an incredulous eyebrow, but my face hurt too much. I had to content myself with sipping my drink in a disbelieving manner.


This is not going to be an in-depth review, this is going to be short: this book was a romp.


I still maintain that it is the perfect example of what would happen if you mixed The Eyre Affair with Indiana Jones and based it in Hogwarts - in other words, there seemed to be a bit of pastiche at work in the creation of the story.

It worked.

I laughed, I cried, I rolled my eyes a lot. 


But I may even read the sequel at some point because the cliffhanger ending (yes, I hated that too) promised another romp with a pertinent question at heart:

Was it really Mary Stuart who was executed or was it, in fact, Elizabeth?


Mostly light-hearted fun ... with a few plot issues ... and lot of dei ex machina.


Reading progress update: 86% - Potential

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

"And then to one side, I saw Jenny Fields. Her lips were moving, but she was such a quiet little thing I couldn’t make out a word.

‘Shut up, you lot,’ I shouted. ‘What is it, Jenny?’

‘Dodos. We could bring back dodos.’

And that was the moment. That was the moment when the true potential of all we could achieve became apparent. That was the moment when everyone’s imagination took flight and we became unstoppable."


I've been meaning to share this for ages, but there are so few (too few!) references to dodos in the books I have been reading lately. ;)


The Snow Leopard

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen



Damn. This book started out so well.


However, after only a few pages it seems to have turned into a version of Log from the Sea of Cortez, complete with philosophical and religious musings on the author's own life, his experimenting with different drugs, and his understanding of Buddhism - in none of which I have any interest at all.


The parts where Matthiessen describes the natural environment of his trek through Nepal are fascinating. Unfortunately, these are too few and too far between for my enjoyment.


I read 85 pages, then skipped to the end. The only sighting of the snow leopard is literally mentioned in the last 3 pages - and he doesn't go into much detail because he wasn't even there. He simply included a very short letter from George Schaller which briefly stated that he did manage to see one in the end (and after Matthiessen had returned home). 


I get that there may be some beauty in Matthiessen's writing, his musings, and his dealing with grief after the loss of his wife, but all that esoteric babble just isn't for me, especially not when I expected the book to focus more on the expedition and the wildlife.  



Reading progress update: I've read 13 out of 312 pages.

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen

GS is the zoologist George Schaller. I knew him first in 1969, in the Serengeti Plain of East Africa, where he was working on his celebrated study of the lion. When I saw him next, in New York City in the spring of 1972, he had started a survey of wild sheep and goats and their near relatives the goat-antelopes. He wondered if I might like to join him the following year on an expedition to northwest  Nepal, near the frontier of Tibet, to study the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep; it was his feeling, which he meant to confirm, that this strange "sheep" of remote ranges was actually less sheep than goat, and perhaps quite close to the archetypal ancestor of both.

Page 1 of the main text of this book has been a roller-coaster of events already: starting with exclamations of "Shut up!" at the surprise that there is such a fabulous creature as a "blue sheep" and resulting in the utter disappointment on finding out that the blue sheep are, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica:


"Blue sheepBlue sheep (genus Pseudois), also called bharal, either of two species of sheeplike mammals, family Bovidae (order Artiodactyla), that inhabit upland slopes in a wide range throughout China, from Inner Mongolia to the Himalayas. Despite their name, blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) are neither blue nor sheep."


Ugh. I am gutted.


They are kinda cute, tho.


[Photo Source]


A Pocket Full of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye - Agatha Christie

It was Miss Somers' turn to make the tea. Miss Somers was the newest and the most inefficient of typists. She was no longer young and had a mild worried face like a sheep. The kettle was not quite boiling when Miss Somers poured the water on the tea, but poor Miss Somers was never quite sure when a kettle was boiling. It was one of the many worries that afflicted her in life.

She poured out the tea and took the cups round with a couple of limp, sweet biscuits in each saucer.

That quote has very little to do with the plot of A Pocket Full of Rye, but it does set the tone of this story. There is something edgy and sinister about A Pocket Full of Rye. This is not a "cozy" mystery. Sure, there is not blood or gore, but there is darkness, thirst for revenge, and calculating human horribleness.


And that's what I see in the mention of tepid tea and limp biscuits. No, I kid. But I do see in this opening that there is something just not right, and it is this this feeling that runs through this story. 


I can't say that I liked this story a lot, and I can't even put my finger on why this is. Maybe it is because of the murder method causes me to have questions, maybe it because the police investigation misses the mark so often, or maybe it is because of that horrible children's rhyme that is the basis for this story, but it is not a story that I enjoy re-reading a lot.


Nevertheless, I recommend it. The different relationship angles in this story are fascinating. Dark, but benefiting from Christie's acute eye for suffering that can be caused by family. 


Approach with strong tea, and sweet, rich, fresh biscuits.

Steed and Mrs. Peel (Vol. 1 - 3)

Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 1: A Very Civil Armageddon - Caleb Monroe, Steve Bryant, Mark Waid Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 2 (Steed and Mrs. Peel: Ongoing) - Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 3 (Steed and Mrs. Peel: Ongoing) - Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe

What a fun way to revisit The Avengers.


The first volume took some getting used to as the banter between Mrs. Peel and Steed could not quite make up for the very un-Avengers apocalyptic storyline. That just did not work for me. It felt very much like The Avengers were forcefully dragged into a different comic book universe - and one that seemed to have a penchant for depicting Mrs. Peel in the same scantily-clad or tight-fitting fashions as, say, Catwoman or Wonder Woman... That has little to do with Mrs. Peel.


Volume 2 did away with this nonsense and reinstated Mrs Peel as the scientist and kick-ass character that she is. The storyline was also more in line with the original series, which I thought was far more enjoyable than Volume 1. And there was some interesting content and discussion.


Volume 3 was fun as well but the reliance on people surviving death and wanting revenge on Steed and Peel for bringing down the Hellfire Club is wearing very thin. Throw in some completely unrelated storylines from the original series (neither the doppelgänger idea nor the Cybernauts have any connection to the Hellfire Club) and I was bored and a little annoyed with this volume. However, the banter between Mrs Peel and Steed was quite natural and that was something to look forward to throughout. 


Vol. 1 - 3*

Vol. 2 - 4*

Vol. 3 - 3*


Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

‘Don’t you ever think that instead of research and archaeology and, let’s face it, guesswork, how much better it would be if we could actually return to any historical event and witness it for ourselves? To be able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard’s reign. And this I know because I saw them with my own eyes.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It would; although I can think of a few examples where such certainty would not be welcomed.’ He looked up sharply. ‘Such as?’ ‘Well, a certain stable in Bethlehem for instance. Imagine if you pitched up with your Polaroid and the innkeeper flung open the door and said, “Come in. You’re my only guests and there’s plenty of room at the inn!” That would put the cat amongst the pigeons.’

This could be a fun read. Let's see where this goes...

Reading progress update: I've read 52 out of 112 pages.

Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 2 (Steed and Mrs. Peel: Ongoing) - Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe



In the mail today

So, the self-imposed book buying ban is not going well but there was no way I could miss out on these...



Thanks to Grim for making me aware that these exist. What's even better is that they look absolutely gorgeous.

Murder in the Bud

Murder in the bud - Phyllis Bottome

"Has Ronnie any right to live - like that?" Hilda demanded fiercely.

"No - not like that," Dr. Silla agreed, "but even his having no 'right' is his own business. He might at any time see his mistake, and alter his way of living. We are at the mercy of our opinion of ourselves - or sometimes be events- or sometimes by others. Criminals are less final than their punishments."


I had been looking forward to this book. Phyllis Bottome was the author that allegedly inspired a young Ian Fleming to take up writing, and her book The Lifeline (1946) allegedly gave rise to the character of James Bond. Murder in the Bud is an earlier (1936) work by her, and I was intrigued to find out what her writing was like. Even if there were no discernible similarities or links to Fleming's work.


What I found was that Bottome's Murder in the Bud did not make for great reading. It may have been very daring in its time for talking about women having affairs and having sex outside of marriage, but too much of the book dwelt on the psychological explanations that were really far-fetched.


However much the psycho-babble may have annoyed me, it was nowhere near as far-fetched as the plot - this book is out of print and I assume that very few readers will rush out to procure a copy, so I have not added spoiler tags (if you are going to read on, you have been warned):


Hilda, our MC, is jilted by Ronnie, her ex-lover. Ronnie is a cad, but he is also her family's lodger, and following the break with Hilda, he now is in pursuit of her little sister, Annie (she's about 18 or 19). Upset by all of this, Hilda decides to kill Ronnie.

I would have thought this was a bit unreasonable. Surely, Hilda could have just turned him out of the house, but she's afraid of fessing up to her parents about the affair because she thinks it would tarnish her reputation, and that of her family etc.
I have no idea why she makes such a fuss about telling her parents because she tells literally everyone else she meets - even perfect strangers.
Anyway, this is all a bit ridiculous, right? The next thing Hilda, a typist, does is to pretend to be one of her clients, a Czech neuroscientist/psychiatrist who is giving a guest lecture in London. Hilda omits to send of a letter declining an invitation to a medical lab and visits the lab herself, dressed as her client Dr. Silla. While she is shown around the lab by a young scientist (who quickly develops a crush on her), Hilda steals two tubes of toxic bacteria.
At this point in the book, I was still not convinced that Ronnie, the ex, deserved all this. And there is no thought about her committing several crimes instead of just tossing him out...
What made me laugh very hard was when I looked up what she stole - her means of killing Ronnie was not some ordinary poison or something sophisticated that could not be traced back to her. No, it was a Shiga culture.
Yup - she planned to kill him with dysentery. 
I don't need to explain how ridiculous this idea is - and that she may have harmed or killed the rest of her family at the same time as it would have been contagious...but there was something hilarious about the idea of killing the shitbag with ... well....erm....yeah.
It never happens, tho. The Czech neuroscientist/psychiatrist/mindreader talks her out of it. She also talks the ex-lover out of being a douchebag.
The end.
This was such a weird book. 
It was as fascinating as it was ... just hilariously bad.
So, while there were no links to Fleming's work in this book, I can see how Fleming may have been inspired to roll with his own ridiculous plots.

This Sweet Sickness

This Sweet Sickness: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics) - Patricia Highsmith

In the dead of night, more snow began to fall, like billions of white, silent tears.

This Sweet Sickness was my 13th book by Patricia Highsmith and you would have thought that by now I would know what to expect and would be able to foresee certain themes or twists. The thing is, I can't. 

One of the very aspects that keeps me reading her books is that I have yet to find a story that follows a formula, or even one that I have encountered in other books of the same era. Sure, some later books may have borrowed from or may have been heavily inspired by her work, but I truly cannot say that I have ever met a Highsmith story that was not expertly crafted and unpredictable. 


Unpredictability is not the only element that kept me reading this particular book in every free minute I could find. After a relatively slow start in which we are introduced to David Kelsey, a man in his late 20s, who rents a room in shared house, appears to work in science, and who is in love with a girl named Annabelle. 


Little by little, we learn that what we know of David, might not be true. We learn that he leads a double life, that his friends are not all that they are cracked up to be, and that Annabelle... Well, the less said about Annabelle, the better. 


The problem is that David's obsessions have taken over his life and we spend a great deal of page time watching David living a life on the edge, where anything might tip him over at any moment.

It must be great, David thought, really great to have such a high, unchallengeable opinion of oneself, to think that everything one did or possessed or thought or maybe even felt was the best and the finest in the world!

And because this is a Highsmith novel, and if we know anything by now it is that the author loved to torment her characters to see what they are made of, the house of cards that David has so carefully constructed comes crashing down one winter's day. 





I truly disliked all of the main characters in this novel. David is obnoxious. His obsession with Annabelle is crazy for way too many reasons to list. Yet, I cannot dislike him as much as the people who form his closest circle. 


His so-called friends are pathetic. They are enablers who feed of David's mental instability. Worst of all, however, is Annabelle. Annabelle is a devious user who is too flattered by David's attentions to send him away or try anything meaningful to help him. She toys with him but then is offended that he would like to be part of her life.  




The reason I cannot dislike David more than the other characters is that he obviously struggles with reality and reason. As much as I raged at the book whenever David came up with another stupid idea, there was no reasoning with David. He simply did not have the state of mind required to use that faculty.  And while there were some parts that reminded me of everyone's favourite Highsmith sociopath Tom Ripley, there was something much more human to David than there ever was in Ripley - David actually did have a capacity for friendship and caring for another person - and I don't mean Annabelle necessarily; he also showed kindness to Mrs Beecham. 


Women! Their prattling little minds and tongues, their so-far-and-no-furtherness, but please come so-far, and their tedious obsession with the idea that human bliss is based on getting a man and woman in the same house together!


He might have wanted to come across as superior and arrogant, he might even have succeeded at times, but really when it comes down to it, David wanted to just have what he thought was a normal life. 




It was very hard to watch David unravel as he did.


(show spoiler)

He ran into a tree, hurting his shoulder and the right side of his head. It was vaguely familiar to him, the action of running into a tree. Where? When? He went slowly back to the tree and put his hand on its rough, immovable trunk, confident that the tree would tell him an important piece of wisdom, or a secret. He felt it, but he could not find words for it: it had something to do with identity. The tree knew who he was really, and he had been destined to bump into it. The tree had a further message. It told him to be calm and quiet and to stay with Annabelle.

‘But you don’t know how difficult it is to be quiet,’ David said. ‘It’s very easy for you—’

Despite all of the sadness and insanity in This Sweet Sickness, I liked it just a little bit more than some other of Highsmith's novels. There is a depth to it that sets it apart from other books. The first book in the Ripley series was a thriller that had been magnificently executed. The Cry of the Owl was a page-turner but essentially also a thriller. The Tremor of Forgery was an experiment in existentialism that was also very interesting. But none of them gave me as much cause to think about the main characters in their time as this one and The Price of Salt (aka Carol). 


This Sweet Sickness made me uncomfortable, but that was nothing compared to the feeling of sadness I had when thinking about what alternatives there could have been for David. What help would have been available to him in 1960? What treatments may he have had to suffer? 


This was a great book, but as with most of Highsmiths' work it is not a light and fluffy diversion.

He had been here so often before, he thought, in the center of a meager circle of possibilities, each of which offered essentially nothing.

Reading progress update: I've read 85%.

This Sweet Sickness: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics) - Patricia Highsmith

This is even more nuts than  The Cry of the Owl.

Completely off the chart loopy.


Oh, and lots of alcohol, insanity, and a house with no immediate neighbours are not a good mix for any of the characters - it makes for, not fun exactly, but gripping reading, tho.


Can't wait to finish this tonight. Will have to finish this tonight because I really want to know how it all ends. Not well, I predict.

Reading progress update: I've read 43%.

This Sweet Sickness: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics) - Patricia Highsmith

Is everyone in this story insane?


I mean, seriously: the MC is a deranged obsessive. The subject of his obsession either doesn't know what she wants or messes him about on purpose - who can say? His "friends" are happy to lie left right and centre even tho it is apparent that there is something seriously wrong. And the MC's antagonist went to threaten our deranged MC with a gun (which did not end well...).


Reading progress update: I've read 301 out of 301 pages.

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

Oh, I really liked this book.

Currently reading

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan
Progress: 5%
Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell
Progress: 10/256pages
Spark'S Satire: Aiding and Abetting: the Abbess of Crewe: Robinson by Muriel Spark
Progress: 86/402pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 30%
Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World (an Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction--Revised and Updated) by Jessica Hagedorn
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
Progress: 53/288pages