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

Edinburgh - Bookfest Mini-haul

As I know that some of you are awaiting an update from Edinburgh, I've spent much of yesterday and most of today at the Book Festival - because Simon Callow and Ali Smith. OK, mostly because of Ali Smith. You all know I love Ali Smith, so I don't need to go into that again. Except, that I will do exactly that ... but in a separate post.


Anyway, for those of you rolling their eyes already at my fangirling over Ms Smith, below is a picture of my (very restrained) efforts at the Book Festival this weekend. They are all signed by the authors, tho, so extra credit for that. (Tho, Thin Air and Unspeakable I managed to just pick up - no queueing for autographs.)




And, ahem, "Autumn" is a fantastic book. I've read it when it was released last year, but got it as a kindle version (because who can really wait for their favourite author's work to arrive by post?!). This new little treasure is just so I can love looking at it on my shelf at home.


"Unspeakable" looked really interesting: It is a novel based on a real event: the last person in Britain to be tried and executed for blasphemy. It is set right here in Edinburgh.


"Thin Air" is one I have read lots of reviews (rather mixed) about. It also is a ghost story, which means that I will have to re-shuffle my Halloween Bingo plans already. But as one of the local(ish) bards has proclaimed "The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men 
Gang aft agley,"


Lastly, who can resist Simon Callow? This looked really interesting and Callow's talk at the Fest yesterday just meant I wanted to know more about Wagner. So, friends, prepare yourselves for some upcoming posts that may feature some pompous and extravagant musical accompaniments. :)


Other noteworthy sightings were Tracey Chevalier and Roger McGough, but I didn't get to see either of their events. :( I was booked to see a discussion with Jackie Kay and Margo Jefferson, but Ms Kay was not able to attend at the last minute.

Still, it has been a great trip. (Even for meeting Ms Smith again...but you might have already guessed that, right?).

The Talented Mr Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn't that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn't take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.

The Talented Mr Ripley was my first introduction to the talents of Patricia Highsmith. That was way back in the 1990s, probably around the time that the Damon/Paltrow/Law film version of the book was released. Since then, I have read a few other books by Highsmith and about her, too. I am still in awe of her writing with every new book I pick up, but The Talented Mr Ripley remains special to me. 


Tom Ripley is a deeply disturbed character, who is described first in the book as a sort of failure at life. He's barely able to support himself, he's sponging off friends, he has no motivation to anything, and yet he sees himself as superior to his fellow man and enjoys manipulating people. Yet, he is also very afraid of being found out.


Not just being found out of various crimes and misdemeanors, but also of being found out to be a failure, a nothing, nobody. Because Tom's greatest issue is that he has no personality whatsoever. That makes him as forgettable as it makes him desperate to be recognised.

He was thinking that he had to identify himself, immediately. It would look worse for him, whatever happened, the longer he put it off. When he left the cathedral he inquired of a policeman where the nearest police station was. He asked it sadly. He felt sad. He was not afraid, but he felt that identifying himself as Thomas Phelps Ripley was going to be one of the saddest things he had ever done in his life.

Now I am not going to try and analyse Tom. I couldn't. It is just that Tom's self-hatred and feelings of unacknowledged superiority set him up to take on any means of escape from his own life that present themselves, and this is where the gripping plot to this book starts off. 


We get to follow Tom on a mission, which he is bound to fail because the whole idea is ludicrous from the start. It does give Tom a new scene, tho, in which he can try and become something, become someone.


I will not give much of the plot away but suffice it to say, there is murder involved, there is a police hunt across Italy, and there are various close encounters between Tom and other characters where I was just on the edge of my seat to find out how it would resolve. Would he get away? I must have spent half my time reading about Tom hoping he would be found out, and the other half hoping that he wouldn't - simply because it was such a thrill to read about this despicable, delusional, pathetic character that is Tom Ripley. 


Re-reading the book after so many years, I knew where the story was going, but was still thrilled by the details that I had forgotten since reading this in the 1990s - details which the film got wrong, by the way. 


Re-reading this also brought out many details about Highsmith's writing that I am not sure I appreciated on the first read: Highsmith toyed with Tom. She absolutely works him like a puppet in this story, and you can see that she derives a twisted kind of fun from doing this.



At times when Tom wallows in self-pity, Highsmith makes us laugh at him.

"His parents had drowned in Boston Harbour, and Tom had always thought that probably had something to do with it, because as long as  he could remember he had been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim. It gave Tom a sick, empty feeling at the pit of his stomach to think that in less than a week he would have water below him, miles deep, and that undoubtedly he would have to look at it most of the time, because people on ocean liners spent most of their time on deck. And it was particularly un-chic to be seasick, he felt. He had never been seasick, but he came very near it several times in those last days, simply thinking about the voyage to Cherbourg."

At times when Tom's monstrosity seems to take over, Highsmith shows us his ineptitude.

"Marge had turned her Martini over. She daubed at the crocheted tablecloth awkwardly with her napkin.

Tom came running back from the kitchen with a wet cloth. "Perfectly alright," he said, watching the wood of the table turn white in spite of his wiping. It wasn't the tablecloth he cared about, it was the beautiful table.

"I'm so sorry," Marge went on protesting.

Tom hated her. He suddenly remembered her bra hanging over the windowsill in Mongibello. Her underwear would be draped over his chairs tonight, if he invited her to stay here. The idea repelled him. He deliberately hurled a smile across the table at her.

"I hope you'll honour me by accepting a bed for tonight. Not mine," he added, laughing, "but I've got two rooms upstairs and you're welcome to one of them."

"Thanks a lot. All right, I will." She beamed at him."


So, what we get in The Talented Mr Ripley is the story told from two points of view - the delusions of Tom Ripley, and the observations of Highsmith who is orchestrating Tom's story. 

Highsmith had a wicked sense humor, and I do mean "wicked" in the sense of dry, dark and very twisted. This comes to full show in Ripley and, on this second read, I could not help but wonder what other nuances of Highsmith's personality may have made their way into the book, too. 


I am assuming that Tom's closetedness may also have been drawn from the author's own experiences, and that the overwhelming amount of alcohol that is described in the book may, sadly, have been another.


As Andrew Wilson quotes from Highsmith's diaries in 1944 (11 years before Ripley), in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Alcohol, for Highsmith, was another way of accessing her subconscious mind and throughout her notebooks and diaries she repeatedly refers to drink as essential for the true artist, as it ‘lets him see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more’.


I have no doubt that I will refer back to Ripley - whether as a result of reading more of Highsmith's work or whether as a comparison to other thrillers I may come across. In the weirdest of ways, The Talented Mr Ripley has been such a fun book.






Reading update posts for this are:


Update 1 - Page 1.

Update 2 - Page 47.

Update 3 - Page 133.

Update 4 - Page 184.

Update 5 - Page 202.

Ripley Read - Update: I've read 202 out of 249 pages.

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

Well, we know Tom is a hot mess, but does he have issues with untidiness in general or just with these specific items?


"He was too sleepy to form specific questions and answers, and too tense to get to sleep. He wanted to make coffee and wake Marge up, so he would have someone to talk to, but he couldn't face going into that room and seeing the underwear and garter belts strewn all over the place, he absolutely couldn't."


Yeah, because ladies underwear is so much more creepy than going into someone's room while they are asleep.

(show spoiler)


Ripley Read- Update: I've read 184 out of 249 pages.

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

And now we have Tom turning his talents to interior decorating:


"The inside of the house was Tom's ideal of what a civilized bachelor's home should look like, in Venice, at least: a checkerboard black-and-white marble floor downstairs extending from the formal foyer into each room, pink-and-white marble floor upstairs, furniture that did not resemble furniture at all but an embodiment of cinquecento music played on hautboys, recorders, and violas da gamba."


...and of course there is more talk of drink. LoL. Who'd have guessed it?

Ripley Read - Update: I've read 133 out of 249 pages.

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

Tom felt quite confident of his safety, but physically he felt awful. He had a hangover, the terrible, jumpy kind that made him stop halfway in everything he began doing, even stop halfway in brushing his teeth to go and see if his train really left at ten-thirty or at ten-forty-five. It left at ten-thirty.

He's really becoming a dab hand at this

murder malarkey

(show spoiler)

if all he suffers from is the hangover from the various cocktails of the night before.

Ripley Read - Update: I've read 47 out of 249 pages.

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

I finished the first eight chapters on the train, and am enjoying meeting the characters all over again. But, I've been spoiled by the film because I actually see the actors in the roles. This is not a bad thing at all, by the way. The cast of the film seemed to really "get" the characters so far. What the film does not tell us is Tom's backstory. In the book this tries to make so much more sense (except,

no, no it does not make sense for what he is doing and is no justification, but it's Highsmith - we are supposed to understand and be sympathetic to Tom

(show spoiler)




There is only one character I would like to make special mention of: Matt Damon's Tom Ripley's swimming trunks.


If you read Chapter 7 you will see my concern.



In the book, Highsmith describes them as "a black-and-yellow thing no bigger than a G-string"

In the film we get: 




Who made the call to change the explicitly-mentioned unmentionables?


I bet Highsmith was having fun when she wrote the scene. It certainly made me laugh.


While the film version of Tom's bathing garment is pretty obnoxious, too, Tom walking about town in a black-and-yellow G-string thingy complented by his suit shoes just cracked me up!

(show spoiler)


Ripley Read - Update: I've read 1 out of 249 pages.

The Talented Mr. Ripley -  Patricia Highsmith

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren't quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to drown his drink in a hurry, pay, and get out.

I am about to catch the train and just wanted to check in to start the Ripley Read from my end. I hope it is still a good book on the second read. 


So, come on then, Tom! Get your bags!

Halloween Bingo - Card & Books



Right, so this is my lovely Bingo Card for this year's Halloween Bingo, which I will update on this post as we go along. 


And I am also planning on listing the books I plan to read / read for each square:


Row # 1: 




Genre Horror: Gilded Needles - Malcolm McDowell

Serial Spree Killer: The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie

Murder Most Foul: (This will have to be a Christie!)

Terrifying Women: (This is likely to be a Highsmith.)

Magical Realism: (GR lists A Tale for the Time Being as Magical Realism. I would not mind a re-read of that if the label fits.) The Ghost Bride - Yangsze Choo



Row # 2:



Witches: (one of the Terry Pratchett books - I miss Granny!) Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett

Haunted House: (tbc)

Gothic: (The Accidental Alchemist - Gigi Pandian seems to feature a gargoyle. Does this count as Gothic? If it doesn't I'll go full Goth with The Castle of Otrando - Horace Walpole.)

Terror in a Small Town: The Moving Finger - Agatha Christie

In the Dark, Dark Woods: The Fellowship of the Frog - Edgar Wallace



Row # 3:



Classic Noir: Double Indemnity - James M. Cain

Ghost: The Ghost Bride - Yangsze Choo Thin Air - Michelle Paver

Free Space: The Angel of Terror - Edgar Wallace

Cozy Mystery: (tbc - a Wimsey probably)

Darkest London: The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham



Row # 4:



Locked Room Mystery: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie

Vampires: Dracula's Guest - Bram Stoker

Supernatural: Wicked Stepmother - Malcolm McDowell

Romantic Suspense: Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier

80's Horror: Tokyo Zodiac Murders - Soji Shimada (1981)



Row # 5:


Amateur Sleuth: Death of an Airman - Christopher St. John Sprigg

Monsters: The Deceased Miss Blackwell and her not-so-imaginary Friends - K.N. Parker or Kraken Bake - Karen Dudley

Classic Horror: Sweetheart, Sweetheart - Bernard Taylor (1977)

Diverse Voices: Haiti Noir - Edwidge Danticat

Country House Mystery: The Thirteen Guests - J. Jefferson Farjeon


I'm not going to allocate books for every square right now, I'll only add the ones (in Italics) that I might otherwise forget. The rest will be a medley of Golden Age Mysteries - Sayers, Christie, etc.  


Lastly, I am going to be joined this year by a very special guest to keep the card as spooky as possible. It gives me no end of thrills to introduce you all to Baron Samedi:



Vera - Elizabeth von Arnim

'My little love isn't going to do anything that spoils her Everard's plans after all the trouble he has taken?' he said, seeing that with her mouth slightly open she gazed at him in an obvious astonishment and didn't say a word.

Vera, written in 1921 and partly informed by von Arnim's marriage to Earl Russell (the older brother to Bertrand), is as fascinating as it is frightening. 


Vera tells the story of young Lucy who marries the somewhat older Everard Wemyss and finds herself caught. The tragedy of it is, she doesn't realise it. 


Vera is often described as the prototype for Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938). In some ways this is quite true: 


Vera, like Rebecca, lends her name to the book's title. Vera, like Rebecca, is the late wife of the husband. Vera, like Rebecca, haunts the young new wife. 


However, on levels of dysfunction, Vera surpasses Rebecca by far. 


Marriage, Lucy found, was different from what she had supposed; Everard was different; everything was different. For one thing she was always sleepy. For another she was never alone. She hadn't realised how completely she would never be alone, or, if alone, not sure for one minute to the other of going on being alone. Always in her life there had been intervals during which she recuperated in solitude from any strain; now there were none. Always there had been places she could go to and rest in quietly, safe from interruption; now there were none.

I pretty quickly in the book wanted to shake Lucy and make her see what she was getting into, but I am not sure she would have listened. 

As the story progressed, dysfunction turned into what can only be described as a nightmare, and I truly hoped that Lucy, much like von Arnim, would find a means to escape from psycho-Everard's clutches. Or that she'd push him off a cliff. Or the top floor window.

Well, that was at the very beginning. She soon learned that a doubt in her mind was better kept there. If she brought it out to air it and dispel it by talking it over with him, all that happened was that he was hurt, and when he was hurt she instantly became perfectly miserable. Seeing, then, that this happened about small things, how impossible it was to talk with him of big things; of, especially, her immense doubt in regard to The Willows.

All Set...

My copy of The Talented Mr Ripley arrived today. Yay!



Unfortunately, it is not the edition I ordered. What is it with online booksellers not listing the right editions? I wanted the one with the older black and white cover... :(


Anyway, I won't have time to replace it before Friday so I am going to hang on to this one. 


One other thing I did want to mention is that I'll actually be away for a long weekend when the Buddy Read starts. It is Edinburgh Festival time. I am hoping to read the book on the train to and from Edinburgh and check in for posts and comments when I am at the hotel.


And who knows...maybe I find the edition of Ripley I wanted in one the countless second-hand bookshops...

The Flat Book Society: Our First (and Second) Reads!

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid
Reblogged from Murder by Death:

Voting for the first two books came to an end today and we have two books tied at 7 votes each, so they're our first two reads.


Starting September 1st and running through October 31st:

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary RoachThe irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside. 


The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars.


Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis?


In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts. Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies. 


And Starting November 1st running through December 31st:

Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermidThe dead talk. To the right listener, they tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died - and who killed them. Forensic scientists can use a corpse, the scene of a crime or a single hair to unlock the secrets of the past and allow justice to be done.

Bestselling crime author Val McDermid will draw on interviews with top-level professionals to delve, in her own inimitable style, into the questions and mysteries that surround this fascinating science. How is evidence collected from a brutal crime scene? What happens at an autopsy? What techniques, from blood spatter and DNA analysis to entomology, do such experts use? How far can we trust forensic evidence?

Looking at famous murder cases, as well as investigations into the living - sexual assaults, missing persons, mistaken identity - she will lay bare the secrets of forensics from the courts of seventeenth-century Europe through Jack the Ripper to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.


Reminders will definitely go out closer to our starting dates, and threads will be setup beforehand.  (There is one thread for each in the club now for general comments).


If either (or both!) of these books sound good to anyone not already in The Flat Book Club, our door is always open and everyone interested is welcome. 


Everard Wemyss

Vera - Elizabeth von Arnim

The other end was filled with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the books, in neat rows and uniform editions, were packed so tightly in the shelves that no one but an unusually determined reader would have the energy to wrench one out. Reading was evidently not encouraged, for not only were the books shut in behind glass doors, but the doors were kept locked and the key hung on Wemyss's watch-chain.

Which tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Everard Wemyss.



'People are so untrustworthy about books. I took pains to arrange mine myself, and they're all in first-class-bindings and I don't want them taken out and left lying anywhere by Tom, Dick, and Harry. If any one wants to read they can come and ask me. Then I know exactly what is taken, and can see that it is put back.' And he held up the key on his watch-chain.

'But doesn't that rather discourage people?' asked Lucy, who was accustomed to the most careless familiarity in intercourse with books, to books loose everywhere, books overflowing out of their shelves, books in every room, instantly accessible books, friendly books, books used to being read aloud, with their hospitable pages falling open at a touch.

'All the better,' said Wemyss. 'I don't want anybody to read my books.'



Consequences - E.M. Delafield

Presently she sank into an armchair before the fire, and tried to visualize the effects of her own action. She was principally conscious of a certain amazement, that a step which seemed likely to have such far-reaching consequences should have been so largely the result of sudden impulse. She had not thought the night before of breaking off her engagement. It had all happened very quickly in a few minutes, when the sense of tension which had hung round her intercourse with Noel had suddenly seemed to reach an unbearable pitch, so that something had snapped. Was this how Important Things happened to one through life?

Consequences is one of the little-known gems that I discovered through the Persephone Books catalogue. It was published in 1919 and seems to mirror some of the author's own experiences as the book's main character "brought up according to strict late Victorian precepts, but failing to ensnare a husband, entered a convent in Belgium".


It would be inappropriate to speculate about how much of Delafield was reflected in the main character of Consequences, Alex(andra) Clare, but the descriptions of the confinement and limitations instilled in Alex by her family and social environment read like a very personal account. It is the personal voice that kept me glued to pages of this book because, lets face it, the plot was not riveting

: young girl grows up surrounded by high-Victorian values, fails at everything expected of her, joins a convent, and finally sets out to live a life of her own only to discover she is not equipped for it

(show spoiler)



None of the characters were likeable, and even Alex was of the sort that I felt sorry for but at the same time wanted to tell to get a grip - only to realise that she was trying her best but had not been raised to ever think for herself or do anything for herself, so how could she have any chance to make do or behave or think like an independent woman?


It was such a depressing story, and yet, it was strangely gripping. 


If this has been based - even in part - on Delafield's own life and circumstances I am curious to find out more about her and how she created the life for herself that Alex so despaired over.

The Moonstone

The Moonstone (Evergreens) - Wilkie Collins

There stood Miss Rachel at the table, like a person fascinated, with the Colonel's unlucky Diamond in her hand. There, on either side of her, knelt the two Bouncers, devouring the jewel with their eyes, and screaming with ecstasy every time it flashed on them in a new light. There, at the opposite side of the table, stood Mr. Godfrey, clapping his hands like a large child, and singing out softly, "Exquisite! exquisite!" There sat Mr. Franklin in a chair by the book-case, tugging at his beard, and looking anxiously towards the window. And there, at the window, stood the object he was contemplating— my lady, having the extract from the Colonel's Will in her hand, and keeping her back turned on the whole of the company.


That blasted diamond. 


I had no idea what to expect from this novel. Sure, it is deemed to be the first detective novel. Sure, it is a masterpiece of gothic atmospheric writing. Sure, it had its entertaining moments.

However, the large part of this book just dragged. It dragged even more than The Woman in White! And just as in The Woman in White, the ending was a little illogical and over-complicated

- an opium-induced hallucination

(show spoiler)

? Collins' reliance on a deus ex machina solution did not work for me in The Woman in White and it did not work for me in The Moonstone.

Reading progress update: I've read 137 out of 289 pages.

Angels in America - Tony Kushner

Just about to launch into part 2. This is pretty awesome stuff. 


I'm gutted that I missed the NT live broadcast at the cinema, but I managed to get a hold of the HBO mini-series from the library so am switching between reading and watching.  

Ripley Read!

Reblogged from Moonlight Reader:
The Talented Mr. Ripley  - Patricia Highsmith

BrokenTune & I had discussed doing a buddy read of The Talented Mr. Ripley & I think here were a few others who were up for it! Let's figure out when we want to start!

Currently reading

Arguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 19/295pages