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

The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

Miranda stands up and fires the cork into the loch, where it makes its own series of ripples, widening out in shining rings across the water. We drink straight from the bottle, passing it around like Girl Guides, the cold, densely fizzing liquid stinging our throats.

‘It’s like Oxford,’ Mark says. ‘Sitting down by the river, getting pissed after finals at three p.m.’

‘Except then it was cava,’ Miranda says. ‘Christ – we drank gallons of that stuff. How did we not notice that it tastes like vomit?’

‘And there was that party you held down by the river,’ Mark says. ‘You two’ – he gestures to Miranda and me – ‘and Samira.’

‘Oh yes,’ Giles says. ‘What was the theme again?’

‘The Beautiful and Damned,’ I say. Everyone had to come in twenties’ gear, so we could all pretend we were Bright Young Things, like Evelyn Waugh and friends. God, we were pretentious.

"Were"? Why the past tense? These people are still annoying. Incredibly irritating actually.


They are a group friends in their 30s who were all at Oxford together and are now spending New Years Eve at a lodge in the Scottish Highlands.


I have a lot of issues with this book. And I mean, A LOT of issues, starting with the characters, who all behave as if they are in their early 20s, not their 30s. None of them seem to have had a life. Any life.

And as much as Foley may have tried to re-create the Bright Young Things one might find in an Agatha Christie mystery, all of her characters are self-absorbed, arrogant, vapid, vacuous snobs. 


I also have issues with the setting of the "lodge in the Scottish Highlands" because it seems to have been written by someone who doesn't believe in research. 


And last of all, the writing is pretty bad. Any writer who has to resort to dropping brand names to describe something, has lost with me. Any writer who tries to define their characters by their fashion choices, is worse. Add a chick lit tone of narration to it, and I am out. 


DNF @ p. 81 of 391


C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship

C S Lewis - Colin Duriez

Oh, I am really torn about this biography. 


I originally picked this up because a) I was looking for a better biography of Lewis than the last one I read ... I don't remember the author but it was dreadful; and b) I was trying to find out whether Duriez' style of writing biography works for me.

He seems to have written extensively on Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings, but he also seems to have a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers forthcoming. It is scheduled for publication in October and I was intrigued because I hope that he will use his Lewis/Tolkien/Inklings background to answer some of my questions about Sayers' interaction with the group and its members. 


The C.S. Lewis biography turned out to be surprisingly good in that Duriez seemed to include a lot of quotes from letters - especially, from correspondence between "Jack", his brother Warnie, and their father. This was fantastic and provided exactly what I was looking for in terms an insight into what they were like in relation to each other.


Another aspect I really liked, was that he tried to present facts and not justify Lewis as some other biographers I have read. If I read a biography, it helps if the author is enthusiastic about his subject, but it is a deterrent if the biographer turns out to be a "fan-boy" or "fan-girl". 


Duriez clearly is enthralled with the Inklings, having written about them several times, but I believe he managed to keep that distance that is required between the biographer and his subject to write a credible biography. 


For the most part, Duriez also refrained from giving meaning or interpreting events in Lewis' life against his later work and faith. This is something I very much appreciate. However, there were instances where he did so and I found them jarring, even if there were only a few of them. 


Where I felt the book was lacking, was the way that Duriez mentioned some of Lewis' theories, but didn't go into any explanations. So, it felt like some parts of the book were really superficial. Of course, the book was not supposed to be an analysis of Lewis entire work but if concepts are important enough to mention them in this biography, then I expect to be given an explanation so I can understand why and how they are important with respect to the biography.

I felt this was missing a lot. 

I also did not appreciate that with respect to Lewis' relationship with his wife, Duriez mentioned that she was a huge influence on his writing, but then withheld any examples or evidence to substantiate this comment. In fact, he the chapter on Joy really short and to my amazement merely referred the reader to William Nicholson's play Shadowlands

I'm a big fan of the play. I'm a big fan of the film which is also based on Nicholson's play. However, including a brief quote by Debra Winger - taken from an "endorsement" on the back cover of Don W. King's Out of my Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman - describing Joy as "keen spirit, mind, and wit" does not fill me with a lot of confidence about how Duriez handled his research, even if - all credit to him - he added an end note to even mention that the source here was a book jacket endorsement.


Anyway, there are aspects I enjoyed immensely about this biography, and I would recommend it to anyone who has never read a biography of Lewis' before and wants to start somewhere. 

However, I would also advise caution: This book merely scratches the surface of Lewis' life and what it does contain about his work is negligible.

The Shooting Party

The Shooting Party - Isabel Colegate

‘Is it really so bad?’ asked Olivia. ‘The countryside looks so beautiful and the people so happy.’

‘They’re having a hard time. We hear a lot these days about factory workers and conditions in slums. No one bothers about rural poverty – we deal with it locally of course as best we can but when there’s no money in land there’s no money for charity. No one cares about country people. All the attention goes to the towns.’

‘I should have thought that every English person’s deepest idea of England was of the country. Doesn’t England mean a village green, and smoke rising from cottage chimneys, and the rooks cawing in the elms, and the squire and the vicar and the schoolmaster and the jolly villagers and their rosy-cheeked children?’

‘It has not existed for many years now.’

‘It must exist. How could we all believe in it so if it didn’t exist?’

‘Exactly. We believe in it. That is why the idea is such a powerful one. It is a myth.’

Oh, I should have liked this book more than I did, I really should.

Isabel Colegate created a little gem of Edwardiana here. It's historical fiction, but doesn't read like it. Stylistically, The Shooting Party was fantastic. 


What turned me off was that the book is very short but tries to address so many aspects of the dying days of the world of Britain before the Great War that I thought it was all a bit crammed. When it wasn't trying to convince me that a house party would cover so many topics of conversation - while also spending a lot of time changing clothes, and getting to know each other, and conducting private affairs - I was fairly bored every time we got to the actual shooting. 


And apart from one character who haunts this book, I never got the feeling of ever getting to know the people who are coming together at this house party. Maybe this would have worked better if the book had been longer. Or maybe this was the author's intention - to keep the characters at a distance from the reader. But then, if Colegate had intended this, why give some of the characters interior lives and flesh them out? 


I really don't know. All I know is that I felt anxious about one character for the entire read: the duck.

Reading progress update: I've read 120 out of 373 pages.

All the Hidden Truths: one shocking crime: three women need answers: Winner of the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Debut of the Year! - Claire Askew

Some more awkward writing:


When the DI says:

"The Gill family were going to need a special kind of support, having clearly lost a very special daughter to truly horrifying injuries. Liz had been a twin, too."

You know, because none of the other parents thought their kids were special, and in any case, the other parents would require less support because they'd all agree that the Gill's daughter was more special than anyone else.




A few pages later, we have the following observation:

"Ishbel could identify other Three Rivers family members easily: they were either crying, or looked like they were trying not to. Even the men looked numbed, lost."

Come again? Why wouldn't the men, i.e. mostly the victims' fathers, be affected?


Then, on the same page, a few paragraphs later, the very same character observes about her husband:

"As he neared, she could tell from his face that he'd been crying, too - the whites of his eyes were bloodshot, and his cheeks were read. She hadn't seen him cry thus far: he'd been disturbingly. angrily stoic throughout the process of being told that Abigail was dead, [...]."

So, which is it? Is it surprising that men should have feelings, as Ishbel seems to think in the first paragraph? Or is more unnatural if they don't, as Ishbel seems to complain about in the last paragraph?


This is just stupid. 


Actually, the whole book is just stupid. 



Reading progress update: I've read 87 out of 373 pages.

All the Hidden Truths: one shocking crime: three women need answers: Winner of the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Debut of the Year! - Claire Askew

The premise of the book has developed into a storyline I would never have picked up if this weren't a book club read.

There is potential here for the author to turn this into something very interesting, but this would have to involve a very skillful handling of characters and psychology, and nothing I have read so far gives me confidence that the author will be able to pull this off. 


If done wrongly or without a high level of sensitivity, this may develop into a horrible case of looking like an author is trying to cash in on well publicised traumatic events. 


This is fiction, of course, but the underlying plot

(mass shooting at a school/college)

(show spoiler)

seems to draw from real events. Many may associate the book's premise with events in the US, but being set in Edinburgh, the setting is not very far from the most infamous event in the UK, and I am finding it challenging to read this story when the responding police officers are portrayed as incompetent:


"As much as I'd love to stand here and discuss your virtues all evening," she said, "I have about five thousand more pressing things to do right now. So how about you let me escort you out of my crime scene? If you leave now, I'll overlook any potential criminal intent on your part."


Bargaining with a journalist potentially compromising a crime scene? How about you throw the book at him? And why does it look like there is no other police at the scene? The place would be swarming with investigators.


Have I mentioned that the characters' actions are totally implausible?

Reading progress update: I've read 46 out of 373 pages.

All the Hidden Truths: one shocking crime: three women need answers: Winner of the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Debut of the Year! - Claire Askew

"PC Park." Birch had to shout over the fire alarm and the general student cacophony. The girl looked up, her face a mask of terror. 

The "girl"? This is meant to be a description of a police constable from the point of view of a Detective Inspector who just minutes before complained about the condescending tone of a dispatch operator?


I'm really not impressed so far.

Reading progress update: I've read 39 out of 373 pages.

All the Hidden Truths: one shocking crime: three women need answers: Winner of the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Debut of the Year! - Claire Askew

Four chapters into the book and the following already annoy me:


1. The back cover blurb gives away a major plot point. It's something that is not mentioned in the chapter that introduces the three main characters. Grrrrrr.


2. Then on page one we have this:

"She forced herself to press the bell and shuffle out of her seat, down the aisle and then the stairs of the swaying bus. She alighted outside the National Library of Scotland, whose double doors were mobbed by a gang of school kids. Moira felt herself tense. She'd come to sit in peace and do some studying for her OU degree, but the thought of being holed up in a dark, oppressive reading room on a day like this had already put a sullen feeling in her chest. A school-trip group clattering about the place practically guaranteed that she'd get nothing done."

Erm, I presume she's referring to the general reading room, which indeed does not have a lot natural daylight in the general reading room (tho other reading rooms have floor to ceiling windows). But one of the effects of the location of the general reading room is that it is isolated from the areas where school kids could possibly clatter about. There is no way the character could have heard them unless the kids had been let loose in the reading room itself. And that is highly unlikely in that particular place. You know, the library that is famous for patrons shushing even the librarians. 


3. The descriptions of everything seem overdone. 


4. I find it difficult to keep the timeline straight: one character wanders about thinking about the past and her son. We learn that she's wearing jeans that she wore when pregnant with her son. Then we learn her son is 20. I'm not saying it's impossible to wear jeans for 20 years...but is it likely?


5. We encounter a 20 year-old construction worker who has been in an accident - fell of from a scaffold and impaled his shoulder in a bar. 


Yet, all of the characters describe him or refer to him as a "boy".


6. We have a DI who hears about the accident and prays that she's not called to that particular case. What case?! Why?!



Weekend Plans

C S Lewis - Colin Duriez The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday -  Saad Z. Hossain The Shooting Party - Isabel Colegate Good Behaviour - Molly Keane, Marian Keyes All the Hidden Truths: one shocking crime: three women need answers: Winner of the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Debut of the Year! - Claire Askew

It's Friday night after a crappy week at work, which saw a departmental restructure that can only be described as A Game of Thrones...but without dragons, and therefore just stupid. So, I have resorted to watching films (The Two Popes is excellent) for comfort since I've come home, and I am planning to make the most of the weekend before work brings another week of madness (I have some new people starting and need to travel abroad for a meeting with another colleague, while trying to keep an eye on goings on ... preparing for another new start and the company's big office move in three weeks' time). 


Anyway..... It's also Granite Noir weekend. So, I am out with friends tomorrow to see Dial M for Murder at the theatre, then have a guided walk around town which is lead by one of my favourite local historians, and lastly, I have finally managed to get a ticket to Katheryn Harkup's Poisoned Tea Party on Sunday. I've been to her Poisoned Cocktail Evenings before but have never been quick enough to get tickets for the tea party.

I am very excited.


As for reading, I really, really want to start the Kelly book, but I just can't at the moment - it's a mood thing. 

The C.S. Lewis biography has turned out to be surprisingly good so far. Nothing entirely new, but I very much enjoy that Duriez has included quotes from correspondence that gives much more insight into Lewis' life so far, and has refrained from giving meaning or interpreting events in his life against Lewis' later work and faith. This is something I very much appreciate. He is also not coming across as a "fan-boy" of Lewis', which puts Duriez at an advantage (imo) over other biographers I have read. 


And I know that I won't have much time to read anything else this weekend, but I really want to pick up something else. Something from the category of "comfort read".

And of course, I will need a book for the flights on Monday/Tuesday.

And this month's book club read is due on Wednesday.... Erm.


Reading progress update: I've read 32 out of 354 pages.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance - Edmund de Waal



It's not the book, it's me. I really need to stop just picking up random books in library sales. 

Or at the very least, I need to start reading the blurb on the back cover. 


This is not for me. 


But at least I can take it off Mt. TBR. 

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

The Mysterious Mr. Quin - Agatha Christie

What an intriguing concept. Mr. Quin truly is mysterious, always showing up in times of impending doom. And yet, he's merely a catalyst for this friend Mr Satterthwaite to act in some way.


In a way, the duo reminded me of the old 80s tv show Highway to Heaven, but less evangelical. 

As this was the first time that I encountered Mr. Quin, I had no idea that Christie had taken this approach in some of her short stories. I knew Mr. Satterthwaite, of course, as a friend of Hercule Poirot's whom we meet in Three Act Tragedy, but not from his other stories. 

Having now read this collection - which really is a little bit of a blend between Poirot/Marple-style mystery short stories and Christie's stories dealing with the supernatural (yes, she did write them! - see The Hound of Death!) - I rather like Mr Satterthwaite as a more mellow version of Poirot, who accepts that he is a snob, but who also is very big-hearted.


This was an enjoyable read, but it lacked some thing for me. I can't even put my finger on what this might be, but I just couldn't feel the same ... thrill as with other Christie favourites.

Reading progress update: I've read 525 out of 525 pages.

Possession - A.S. Byatt

Awww. I just finished the Postscript, and therefore the book. What a huge effort on Byatt's part!


I loved it, tho, maybe ironically, not so much the poetry. 

But much else in this story. 


And damn, the scene in the graveyard and the descriptions of the storm were fabulous.

In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crashed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.

Reading progress update: I've read 460 out of 525 pages.

Possession - A.S. Byatt

This whole plot is leading up to something. It's a convergence of academics who have mostly been satirized so far. 


I'm not sure what this is building up to, but I would not put it past Byatt if this book ended on a joke.


I'll probably finish this tonight.

Featuring the Saint

Featuring the Saint (Saint 05) - Leslie Charteris

Featuring the Saint contains three novellas: The Logical Adventure, The Wonderful War, and The Man Who Could Not Die.


I originally picked up the book from a favourite secondhand bookshop because I wanted to give the Saint books another chance.

I read my first Saint adventure back in 2013, and even tho I was not overly impressed with the book I have been wondering if this was a series I could enjoy. It turns out, I will always love the tv series but have no intention to continue with the books.


The main reasons for this are two-fold: 


1. The writing does not work for me. Yes, the books are action-packed and the Saint is an interesting character, but it strikes me the books were written for an audience of teenage boys. We have swashbuckling, which is great, but we also have lots of damsels in distress and women characters being either dismissed, characterised mostly by their relationship to male characters, and other cringe-worthy scenes.


2. I seek out formulaic vintage crime fiction books or tv series for entertainment between more serious books, or while digesting another more complex read, or just to relax. While The Saint is a perfectly great tv series, I've been spoiled by other series when it comes to the books - most recently, Francis Durbridge's Paul Temple series. While Durbridge's plots are extremely formulaic (and quite similar to those of Charteris actually), his main characters, Paul Temple and his wife Steve, are so much more likable and so much more fleshed out. It would not occur to Steve to accept the role of damsel, nor would Paul dismiss his wife's ideas or comments on a case (or in any other matter).


Anyway, I'm done with the The Saint books.

Reading progress update: I've read 226 out of 525 pages.

Possession - A.S. Byatt

‘He didn’t imagine Ash had a companion?’

‘No. Would you, reading those letters?’

‘No. They read exactly like the letters of a solitary husband on holiday, talking to his wife of an empty evening. Unless it’s significant that he never says “Wish you were here” or even “I wish you could see” – that’s all a textual critic could make of it. Apart from the obvious reference to drowned Is which we knew he already knew about. Think about it – if you were a man in the excited state of the writer of the Christabel letters – could you sit down every evening and write to your wife – in front of Christabel, it would have to have been? Could you produce these – travelogues?’


Ooooh, there is even a bit of mystery in this. :D


Btw, I have a question: This may sound odd, but the modern v. historical setting, the focus on Victorian mores interpreted against a modern analysis reminds me of snippets I've read about John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Has anyone read The French Lieutenant's Woman?

Are the books similar?

Is it similar to Fowles' The Magus (which I absolutely hated)?

Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 255 pages.

C S Lewis - Colin Duriez

Perhaps I'm just craving some nonfiction, maybe this is just a random book pick from my physical Mt. TBR shelve, but it is equally likely that @markk's recent podcast (link here) may have inspired me to start this Duriez's biography of C.S. Lewis tonight. 


Of course, I'm also trying to find out whether Duriez style of writing biography works for me. He seems to have written extensively on Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings, but he also seems to have a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers forthcoming. It is scheduled for publication in October and I am intrigued because I am hopeful that he will use his Lewis/Tolkien/Inklings background to answer some of my questions about Sayers' interaction with the group and its members. 

Reading progress update: I've read 188 out of 525 pages.

Possession - A.S. Byatt

You understood my very phrase – the Life of Language. You understand – in my life Three – and Three alone have glimpsed – that the need to set down words – what I see, so – but words too, words mostly – words have been all my life, all my life – this need is like the Spider’s need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out – the silk is her life, her home, her safety – her food and drink too – and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew – you will say she is patient – so she is – she may also be Savage – it is her Nature – she Must – or die of Surfeit – do you understand me?

I love the letters between Christabel and Randolph. 


Despite this, I need to switch to another book right now. I'll get back to Possession later tonight or tomorrow, but it is one of those books that does need one's full attention.

Currently reading

Write On Both Sides Of The Paper by Mary Kelly
Der Weltverbesserer: Sämtliche Erzählungen 1910-18 by Volker Michels, Hermann Hesse
Progress: 102/359pages
The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) by William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor
Progress: 481/1344pages
The Desert and the Sown: The Syrian Adventures of the Female Lawrence of Arabia by Gertrude Bell