The Final Round-Up | Non-Fiction

Finally bringing the major catch-up to a close, here are the non-fiction reads which I have not reviewed so far on the blog. An interesting mix but with my usual slant towards true crime 🙂

Death in the Air * Kate Winkler Dawson
Subtitled: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City

The author takes the events of early December 1952 when a severe smog brought London to a halt and ties them in with the case of John Reginald Christie, serial killer and all-round nasty piece of work. I was very interested in getting my hand on this book for two reasons:

  • my husband was born in 1951 and he had heard many stories of what it was like to live in London at this time, with the smog seeping into homes through every crack and crevice, which he passed on to me; and
  • when I first started working in London I had a colleague who had worked with Christie in his short stint at National Savings.

I was disappointed in the book. At first, this had to do with the scene-setting, where I found myself asking about the accuracy of some of the descriptions – along the lines of “could you really see that from there?” – and the general infelicities of language when (apologies to my friends in the US) an American is writing about the UK. But mostly my problem was the link with Christie’s case, which seemed far too tenuous to be the basis of this sort of mixed subject book. And it’s a shame because the scandal of the government’s response to the smog and the moving stories of individual experience would have been enough to form a superb book on their own.

Bad Blood * John Carreyrou
Subtitled: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up

This book covers the “biggest corporate fraud since Enron”, as described by the investigative journalist who broke the original story. A company run by a charismatic and attractive young woman and backed by lots of significant business leaders looks to be one of the major success stories of recent years in Silicon Valley, except for the small matter that the medical technology it claimed to have developed simply didn’t work, and anyone raising concerns, whether inside or outside the company was harassed and threatened.

Elizabeth Holmes was/is an appalling person, enabled by those blinded by the possibility of making megabucks, and silencing critics by threatening their ability to work in the industry. You don’t have to know much about business to get a great deal out of this fascinating book. I knew very little about this until I heard Karen Kilgariff of My Favourite Murder fame mention on the podcast that she was reading this.

Since then there have been more books, a podcast and a documentary covering the story, but this is the original from the guy that was there.

Stalling for Time * Gary Noesner
Subtitled: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

I picked this up when I found out it was one of the books on which the TV series Waco was based; we had just started watching the programme and I wanted to know a little bit more about the background. It covers a whole lot more than just Waco as the author uses the experience he gained over 30 years in the FBI to assess the development of the use of negotiation and the tensions between that approach and increasingly militarised law enforcement. A short but engrossing book.

I still haven’t been able to watch the last two episodes of the series because the whole thing was such a terrible disaster and seeing that played out will be difficult. The cast is really excellent though and I read the book in the voice of Michael Shannon who plays Noesner.

Ma’am Darling * Craig Brown
Subtitled: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

I don’t normally read royal biographies but this has won so many awards, and I find Brown such an interesting writer that I gave it a go, and I’m so glad that I did because it is wonderful. I laughed out loud but also found some of the stories sad and touching. The best way to describe it is to quote from the blurb:

Combining interviews, parodies, dreams, parallel lives, diaries, announcements, lists, catalogues and essays, Ma’am Darling is a kaleidoscopic experiment in biography, and a witty meditation on fame and art, snobbery and deference, bohemia and high society.

A clever book in the very best way.

Traces * Patricia Wiltshire
Subtitled: The Memoirs of a Forensic Scientist and Criminal Investigator
Patricia Wiltshire has had a long and distinguished career as an expert in forensic ecology, botany and palynology. She has been involved in a number of high-profile cases across the world and tells the story of her involvement in many of these alongside snippets of her personal life.

It’s a fascinating if slight book by a remarkable woman, but I did find myself occasionally and disrespectfully muttering “I collect spores, moulds and fungus” a la Egon Spengler.

A nice addition to my true crime library.

Fiction Reading Round-Up

Here we go with a review of novels that I read earlier in the year and didn’t get around to reviewing. Eight books that deserve recognition, even though not all hit the right spot for me.

The Behaviour of Moths * Poppy Adams

From her lookout in the crumbling mansion that was her childhood home, Ginny watches and waits for her younger sister to arrive. Vivien has not set foot in the house since she left nearly fifty years ago; the reclusive Ginny has rarely ventured out, retreating into the precise routines that define her days, carrying on her father’s solitary work studying moths.

Is it wrong for me to say that the bits of the book about moths are more interesting than the story of the two sisters? I normally like an unreliable narrator, here partnered with time shifts and carefully parcelled out revelations, but I was slightly frustrated that there was too much room for the reader to guess what was going on, particularly about Ginny. What, if anything, was actually “wrong” with her? Donated this one as soon as I had finished it.

The City of Mirrors * Justin Cronin

The world we knew is gone. What world will rise in its place? The Twelve have been destroyed and the terrifying hundred-year reign of darkness that descended upon the world has ended. The survivors are stepping outside their walls, determined to build society anew—and daring to dream of a hopeful future. 

Which doesn’t tell you that much, not surprising given that this is the long-awaited (by me) final volume in The Passage trilogy, bought because I enjoyed the first two and was very keen to see how it all ended.I’ve had it for a while and picked it up at this point because we had started watching the TV adaptation, which started promisingly but which I lost interest in after a few episodes.

I loved this book. The ending was very satisfying and I found the detour into the background of Zero (the Big Bad Guy) gripping, though I’m aware not everyone agrees. If you need a post-apocalyptic vampire thriller (and who doesn’t) then this series is for you.

Convent on Styx * Gladys Mitchell

The nuns of the Order of Companions of the Poor summon eminent psychiatrist and sleuth Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate a series of anonymous letters, but when she arrives the prime suspect has just been found drowned in the convent school pond with, appropriately enough, her own massive Family Bible.

A late Mrs Bradley mystery, published in 1975, this was a very enjoyable and easy (in the best sense) read. There is a convent, there are nuns (obvs), there is a school attached and so there are inquisitive schoolgirls, and there is more than one mysterious death to be solved. Mrs B doesn’t turn up until halfway through the novel but that gives the reader plenty of time to get to know all of the characters, which makes the story all the more enjoyable. I may have picked this edition up because I loved the cover.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things * Iain Reid

I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always. Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.” And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.

Apparently, when I read this back in January (I KNOW) my reaction as expressed on Goodreads was “Still thinking about this one. Enjoyed it enough to read to the end but also somewhat frustrated by the story.”

Basically, I found it totally bizarre and I’m not at all sure that I understood it. Perhaps I should read it again and see if it makes more sense a second time. Or I could just wait for the Netflix adaptation, though goodness only knows how they will film this one.

The Affinity Bridge * George Mann

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. […] But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes. 

Way back in the dawn of time, otherwise known as January 2014, I read The Executioner’s Heart, not realising that it was the latest in the Newbury & Hobbes series. I finally got around to reading this, the very first, thoroughly enjoyed it and will be reading them all.

Currently * Sarah Mensinga

Every year, Nerene’s village shelters in Varasay City while the surrounding lands flood. Yet Varasay only protects those who obey its laws, and after Nerene’s best friend starts a riot, he’s in danger of being cast out. Nerene manages to find Lord Osperacy, a travelling thief with enough power and money to save her friend, but he’ll only help her if she agrees to work for him. 

Sarah is a hugely talented artist and illustrator (I have her clever portrait of Anne Boleyn hanging beside my desk) and this is her first novel. I really enjoyed it. The world-building, which I understand is inspired by early 20th-century travel on ocean liners is really strong. Nerene is engaging and likeable and I was rooting for her all the way. An excellent fantasy, and Sarah also has a YouTube channel where she shares an illustrated audiobook version of the novel. Go look!

Black Helicopters * Caitlín R. Kiernan

Says Goodreads:

A dark jewel of a novella, this definitive edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters is the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original.

I appreciated the writing but I think I would have got more out of the novella and just generally understood it better if I had read Agents of Dreamland first. So I will do that and may then re-read this one to see if it works better that way. I can feel that it’s impressive but it didn’t speak to me in the way I thought it would.

Real Tigers * Mick Herron

London’s Slough House is where disgraced MI5 operatives are reassigned to spend the rest of their spy careers pushing paper. But when one of these “slow horses” is kidnapped by a former soldier bent on revenge, the agents must breach the defences of Regent’s Park to steal valuable intel in exchange for their comrade’s safety. 

Another excellent entry in the Slough House/Jackson Lamb series. So realistic that whenever I’m in the Barbican area I look for the office building (full disclosure – I haven’t found it yet). Strong plotting and characterisation as always, though I’m sure any resemblance to the current floppy-haired British PM is totally coincidental (though probably spot on!) I’ve already bought the next one.

The Mega Movie Round Up

I have decided that rather than ignore some of the things I’ve read or seen this year, I would do a couple of major catch-ups to get me back on track. Hence this movie round-up – ten films desribed in a slightly greater number of paragraphs. Let us begin!

Ocean’s Eight

An all-women gang of eight (duh) comes together to carry out an almost impossible robbery at the prestigious Met Gala in New York. Hijinks ensue. I loved this, not just because I follow all of the shenanigans around the real met Gala, or because the women involved include some of my favourite actresses, but because of the clothes and the jewellery and the lack of snarkiness between the gang members and the general all-round awesomeness. It’s not high art but it’s a lot of fun!

Hell or High Water

A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

Which translates into a very enjoyable modern western heist movie. All three main leads were excellent, and I always like an inconclusive ending. Hollywood Chris #3 does a great job in the lead role. I am happy to explain my Hollywood Chris ranking system on another occasion or in the comments if required.

The Meg

There was absolutely no way I was going to miss out on watching this film, in which The Stath is in exile following an encounter with Something in the Deep that no-one believes in until someone needs rescuing and our boy is the Only Man for the Job, whereupon said Something reappears.

Cue acts of derring-do, an unfeasibly enormous prehistoric sea creature and trademark grumpy Londoner faces as our hero punches the shark. Not a euphemism.

I LOVED THIS!

Vita & Virginia

I saw this biopic about the romance between Virginia Woolf (one of my literary heroines, please note) and Vita Sackfield West at the BFI Flare festival among a group of folks entirely pre-disposed to admiring the work. Elsewhere some have described it as dull but I really liked it and am of the view that the stateliness perfectly captures the whole buttoned-up but Bohemian vibe of the Bloomsbury Group, about which I have read far too much since first picking up Mrs Dalloway at Uni in (gulp) 1979.

Three Identical Strangers

This is an awful and tragic story about three young men who spent their whole childhoods not realising that they were not only adopted but part of a set of triplets who had been split up as part of what seems to have been a terribly misguided social experiment. I really felt for them as they talk about finding out what had happened to them and the impact it has had. A very strong and worthwhile documentary, definitely worth watching.

Mandy

So I was at home by myself one day as the Book God was out gallivanting with his friends, and being at a loose end I decided (as you do) that what I needed was some psychedelic horror. Hence Mandy, in which Nicolas Cage goes spectacularly off the rails after personal tragedy meted out at the hands of a cult leader (the UK’s very own Linus Roache) and his deformed biker-gang sidekicks. You will believe that a man can overact. There is blood, there is gore, there is extreme trippiness and the best chainsaw fight ever. Bonkers.

Skyscraper

It should be noted that one of my favourite films of all time is The Towering Inferno, one of the greatest disaster movies ever made and seen by me countless times. “Built to code” has become a catch-phrase chez Bride, and I eye any astonishingly high building based action movies with some suspicion.

Having said that, Skyscaroper was great fun. The Rock is engaging, Neve Campbell as his wife gets more to do than just hanging about waiting to get rescued and the effects were cool. It could have done with more cowardly Richard Chamberlain types plunging to their deaths in true 1974 style, but that’s just a personal preference 😀

Hellboy

Oh dear. I really wanted to like this. I knew it was going to be a very different take than the beloved Guillermo del Toro movies but I thought David Harbour was really good casting, and the ubiquitous Ian McShane is always worth watching but this was disappointing. It was trying far too hard and though I’m not normally one to complain about noise, it was just too loud. Felt a bit let down, to be honest.

The Transporter

Many many moons ago I was challenged to watch a number of movies before I turned 50. One of these was The Transport and it reflects my commitment to this challenge that I only got around to watching this now that I am 57. It was enjoyably silly with a very young Stath in the early stages of perfecting his pissed off at the inconvenience expression alongside his admittedly impressive fighting skills.

Sorcerer

William Friedkin’s remake of The Wages of Fear is a very interesting and very 1970s film and proves once again that I’m right to consider Roy Scheider a great actor, sadly missed. It’s long but engrossing and worth checking out.

Sunday Salon | 18 August

I haven’t blogged for a wee while because I have become a bit overwhelmed by the backlog of reviews I have on my To-Do list, so I took some time to have a think and hopefully you’ll be seeing the outcome of that thinking very shortly. Let’s just say that there may be some mega-posts on the way.

But what about this last week or so, you are asking?

Well …….

The Books

I’m not exactly in a reading slump but I do seem to find myself unable to settle to a single book and have about half a dozen titles on the go. It will be no surprise to you that I haven’t finished any books in recent memory. If you’re interested in the specifics my Goodreads list should be in my sidebar.

I have still been buying though, mostly pre-orders with a couple of speculative purchases.

  • Here There Are Monsters * Amelinda Berube – “The Blair Witch Project meets Imaginary Girls in this story of sisterhood turned toxic, imaginary monsters brought to life and secrets that won’t stay buried.”
  • Hunting Killers * Mark Williams-Thomas – the author “is a former police detective and multi-award-winning investigative journalist. He has been at the centre of some of the most high-profile investigations of recent years involving killers and paedophiles. In this gripping and unflinching book, Mark reveals how he has pieced together these complex cases.
  • Sanctuary * VV James – “To Detective Maggie Knight, the death of Sanctuary’s star quarterback seems to be a tragic accident. Then the rumours start. Everyone knows his ex-girlfriend is the daughter of a witch – and she was there when he died.” Full disclosure, Vic is an acquaintance of mine and a super cool person. Worth noting that I would buy her books even if I didn’t know her!
  • To Be Taught if Fortunate * Becky Chambers – “At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.
  • The Undoing of Arlo Knott * Heather Child – “Arlo Knott develops the mysterious ability to reverse his last action. It makes him able to experience anything, to charm any woman and impress any friend. His is a life free of mistakes, a life without regret. But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist.
  • The Coming Thing * Anne Billson – “Your best friend gets all the attention. Now she’s pregnant with the Antichrist, religious maniacs are trying to kill her, and she wants to get an abortion. How do you compete with that, persuade her to keep the baby, and at the same time hold down your job as a bookshop assistant while trying not to think too much about decapitated Chihuahuas and the unpleasantness at the clinic? It’s not easy.” I really like Anne’s stuff whether its novels or film reviews, but bought this following an exchange about decorative plasters on Twitter.
  • Helter Skelter * Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry – the true story of the Manson murders, which were 50 years ago this week and form part of the new Tarantino movie which I will be seeing next week. Given my deep fascination with true crime, it astonishes me that I haven’t read this yet.

Other stuff

I went to Sadler’s Wells yesterday afternoon to see Sir Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of my favourite ballet of all time, Romeo & Juliet with the Prokofiev score. It was a production set in the Verona Institute in the near future (as explained in the programme) and the company consisted of young dancers starting out on their careers. It was really awesome, a very different take on the tale of young love, and I could happily have sat through the whole thing again. Do see this if you possibly can.

That’s my week. See you next time 🙂

Hereditary

After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.

Hereditary has been on my radar for some time as part of a long list of horror films that I have had on my wishlist. I decided to watch it at home before taking myself off to the cinema to see Midsommar by the same director, Ari Aster, mainly to get a sense of what I was getting myself into.

Oh my.

So we have Annie, an artist whose abusive mother after struggling with Alzheimer’s, and because Annie did not get on with her mother at all she is finding it difficult to grieve and is a mixture of angry and fragile. This has an unhealthy impact on her family; husband Steve is a decent man trying to hold everything together, and the teenagers Charlie and Peter. All sorts of little odd things happen, then An Event takes place which changes the dynamic of the film and we move into finding out all of the dark secrets in the family, and some outside malign influences.

Then it all goes batshit crazy.

The first thing to say about this is I didn’t find it frightening. I did, however, find it disturbing and really unsettling, making me feel uneasy and frightened on behalf of several of the characters, especially Peter.

There are several gross-out moments which I found effective with a certain amount of “how is that even possible” floating around the back of my mind.

Several reviewers have references the influence of Rosemary’s Baby (a film which freaked me out when I saw it as a teenager and which I still find difficult to watch) and I think that’s a very valid comparison. I liked the feeling of dread, that sense that something is about to happen and you know it’s going to be awful but it can’t be stopped.

The last 20 minutes or so is deeply strange and veers a little close to silliness but gets away with it, entirely due to the performances of the main cast. Toni Collette as Annie is amazing; I hated and felt sorry for her all at once.

Would watch again.

Dazzling details: Hereditary was directed by Ari Aster, is 2h 7m long and rated 15 for strong threat, gory images, language and drug use.

The Dead Don’t Die

The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

I am a latecomer to the world of Jim Jarmusch. My friend Silvery Dude strongly recommended Night on Earth as something I would enjoy, and I did, and then two of my favourite actors, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, were cast in Only Lovers Left Alive which I absolutely adored. So when I found out that Jarmusch was making a zombie movie and that I could get to a preview screening then I jumped at the chance to see it.

I’ll get onto my thoughts in a moment, but the response to this movie has been very interesting to me, veering from “appalling (bafflingly so)” via “the idea of the movie is better than the movie itself” to “awkwardly charming” and “very enjoyable and self-referential”

One comment I do agree with is that if you aren’t already an admirer of Jarmusch then this isn’t the film that’s going to change that.

As for me, I thought The Dead Don’t Die was great fun. It works because the humour is so deadpan and the situation so silly and the fourth wall is broken in such an enjoyable way that it makes even the really odd bits near the end acceptable. The ensemble cast is really good, with the standouts for me being two of my current crushes, Adam Driver (who gets most of the best bits) and Tilda Swinton, whose accent was excellent as far as my Scottish ears were concerned.

It really isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it and will happily watch it again.

Dazzling details: The Dead Don’t Die was directed by Jim Jarmusch, is 1h 44m long and rated 15 for gory images, strong violence, language. I saw it at a packed preview screening in NFT1

Sunday Salon | 21 July 2019

The tennis at Wimbledon is over and I’m only watching the Tour de France highlights each evening so there is no reason not to be reading, but here we are, with not much progress made. But it’s been an interesting couple of weeks since my last post so I shouldn’t complain (though of course I will, because that’s what I do!)

Instead, I’ve been on a horror film kick which means watching movies by myself as the Book God, who enjoys a good monster movie, doesn’t like the sort of thing that I’ve been focussed on, so it’s just as well that I am happy to go to the cinema by myself. Reviews of The Dead Don’t Die, Hereditary and Midsommar will follow shortly.

We also finally got to see the Manga exhibition at the British Museum, which was really excellent – there’s a small gallery of pictures I took there on my Instagram feed, as well as the one at the top of this post. If you’re in London I can really recommend it as there is so much to see.

But what about the books?

Books read since my last post:

Stalling for Time by Gary Noesner – I mentioned this in my last post and will be writing about it shortly. I found it absolutely fascinating as a companion to the Waco TV series which we have been watching

Our Rainbow Queen by Sali Hughes is a coffee table book which looks at QEII’s fashion over her long life organised by colour. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you will know that I love fashion so this was a no-brainer though I decided to get it in the Kindle edition. It’s a light and quick read consisting of photographs with captions by the author. I had a couple of quibbles about some of the information in the captions but this is more than made up for by the wonderful photographs.

New books since my last post, of which there are quite a few because I might not be reading but that doesn’t mean I’m not still collecting! These aren’t in any order….

Eternity’s Sunrise * Marion Milner – subtitled A Way of Keeping a Diary, this is another area of interest for me. I’m a very patchy journal-keeper and want to become more consistent in the practice. I like the idea behind this book, which suggests asking the simple question “What is the most important thing that happened yesterday?”

Exhalation * Ted Chiang – a new collection of short stories from the mind behind the story that was the basis for the movie Arrival. His work is quite challenging but worth the investment. This was a pre-order.

Five Seasons * Mons Kallentoft – I can be influenced by the “people who bought this book also bought these books” flags on Amazon and that’s how I found this author, and couldn’t resist buying the omnibus containing the five Malin Fors books.

Not For Use In Navigation * Iona Datt Sharma – more short works, described as thirteen stories of love and queerness, hope and decolonisation, and the inevitability of change. I may have been attracted by the cover.

Perihelion Summer * Greg Egan – science fiction novel by an author I don’t think I have read before. Looks good.

Rain Girl * Gabi Kreslehner – the first Franza Oberweiser detective novel with the standard young woman found dead and a search for justice undertaken but looks very interesting.

The Bee’s Kiss * Barbara Cleverley – a detective novel set in 1920s London, this is actually the fifth in the Joe Sandilands series. The first four are set in India and didn’t really appeal, though the Book God loved them. I understand that this book effectively kicks off a new series which shares the same character and is a good place to start.

The Reapers are the Angels * Alden Bell – a Southern Gothic post-apocalyptic novel which was included on a “best of” list on, I think, Crime Reads. Speaks to my interests.

The Survival of Molly Southbourne * Tade Thompson – the sequel to The Murders of Molly Southbourne which was one of my favourite reads from last year, I pre-ordered this as soon as it was announced. Excellent stuff and Thompson has just won the Arther C Clarke award for his novel Rosewater which I also have.

The Toll * Cherie Priest – another pre-order, this is a ghostly tale of swamps, cabins, mysterious bridges that may or may not exist and a missing wife. Creepy.

The Triumph of the Spider Monkey * Joyce Carol Oates – Ms Oates is one of my favourite writers and so prolific that I find it difficult to keep track of what she has published. This has been out of print for forty years or so and I am only aware of it because a fellow blogger reviewed it. madness, murder and maniacs.

This Is How You Lose the Time War * Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – this has been on my radar for a while but shot up my to-buy list when I found out it’s an epistolary novel. I’m a sucker for those. Reviews have all been good.

Traces * Patricia Wiltshire – more non-fiction in the forensic science field.

Wanderers * Chuck Wendig – I’ve been looking forward to the release of this novel, which has been described as “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.” A pre-order.

Wilder Girls * Rory Power – a disease which has killed many, a quarantined girls school, this sounds a bit Lord of the Flies, which is not a bad thing.

I’m currently reading The Clockwork Scarab (still) and Slowly We Die by Emilie Schep, Scandi noir. I’m about halfway through both of these and hope to finish them soon.

Hope you have a great reading week!