Slow Horses & Dead Lions

IMG_0771I was drawn to reading the Slough House series of novels by Mick Herron via a recommendation from Jen Williams (@sennydreadful on Twitter and a fine author herself), and before I finished the first one had already bought the second.

That should tell you something.

Slough House is the (as far as we know, fictional) part of MI5 and located near the Barbican in London. It’s where those members of the service who have blotted their copybooks are sent to endure a miserable, slow decline in the hopes that they will see sense and voluntarily resign; in my experience in the civil service the equivalent is being assigned to Special Projects or being sent to work in the library when you aren’t a librarian, though to be honest I could never understand why that was thought to be a punishment.

Anyway, the books.

Slow Horses is the terribly tortuous punning name given to those who “work” there, carrying out a series of meaningless tasks and boring paperwork. But Jackson Lamb knows what he’s doing and when, in the first novel, he senses that there is something not right at all about the hooded figure tied up and threatened with death on the interwebs, he finds a way for his team to get involved in a proper mission to resolve the issue. I won’t say any more about that.

In Dead Lions, the fallout from the previous novel is still being felt – and that’s one of the things I like about the series, it builds on what’s gone before – and when a former colleague is found dead on a bus (that’s what you get these days on  rail replacement services) he feels the need to investigate, at a time when a couple of members of his team have been assigned to protect a visiting Russian oligarch. It slowly become clear that the two issues are connected.

I really enjoy a good spy novel – one of my favourite reading experiences was le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy which I found in my then father-in-law’s bookshelf (and why didn’t the BBC film that?) – and these are wonderfully seedy, with that depressed air you get in some parts of the public service where everything seems futile. The characters are really strong, there are the obligatory wheels within wheels and of course lots and lots of double crossing. And when things happen there are real consequences.

There is a very good interview with Mick Herron in the Guardian which gives some insight into the characters he’s created, and this in particular made me laugh:

[…] I’m a London-bound commuter and an open-plan-office worker, and anyone who’s been either of those things knows that bile and venom are only ever a hair’s-breadth away.

So true.

I fully intend to read the whole series and if you like a good post-Cold War spy story you should give them a try too.

The Week in Review

IMG_0774I won’t lie – it’s been a quiet one. Apart from an outing to the osteopath (I have a shoulder problem, not affecting my drinking/eating arm thankfully 😀 ) and a visit to the cinema (the photo at the top of this post will give you a clue about the movie we saw), I’ve mostly been doing stuff at home in advance of our soon-to-be-upon-us annual holiday.

Here are the bookish stats:

Books finished:

Of course this means that I have exceeded my target of 52 books in 52 weeks, which I may just have mentioned before.

Currently reading:

  • Night Film – still reading this, will be trying to finish before my hols
  • Flowers in the Attic – a book club selection, which I haven’t read before; I must say that I am a bit wary

New books:

I am currently pulling together a selection of Kindle reads for my holiday, which I hope to share in my next Salon post.

Hope you all have a great reading week.

20 Books of Summer Report Card

IMG_0769Way back in the mists of time, before the heatwave we had here in London, I signed up for #20BooksofSummer because:

[…] as my reading is going pretty well this year I decided it was time that I took part in a challenge, and thought that this one (hosted by Cathy over at 746Books) was ideal. The twist is that I’ll be reading only books on my Kindle app; this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on #ReadingMuriel2018 – I (foolishly) believe I can do both!

I’m very late reporting back (here’s Cathy’s closing post from 4 September) but in case you need a bit of a hint – not only couldn’t I do both, I didn’t complete either 😞

I’ve repeated my original list below – the items in bold are the ones that I read, though with the move to the new blog I decided not to go back and complete any outstanding reviews. All of the books I finished are really enjoyable. So here we go:

  • You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (I also watched the film version which was excellent)
  • Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
  • All That Remains by Sue Black
  • The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • Who Killed Sherlock Holmes by Paul Cornell
  • The Cathedral of Known Things by Edward Cox
  • Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell
  • Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
  • The Keeper by Alastair Gunn
  • Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
  • Slow Horses by Mick Herron
  • The Summer Children by Dot Hutchinson
  • Head On by John Scalzi
  • I Still Dream by James Smythe
  • The Hunger by Alma Katsu
  • The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
  • Gilded Cage by Vic James
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

In summary I read 18 books over the summer; 10 from my list, 3 Muriels and 5 others. I’m pretty happy with the outcome, so will definitely take part again next year.

Reading Horror: A Wishlist

img_0759I have been a fan of horror for as long as I can remember. In my final year of primary school (so I would have been 11) I managed to get my hands on an American paperback of HP Lovecraft stories which I devoured (I’m pretty sure my Mum would not have let me get the book if she had seen the cover first!). And then with Carrie being published in the mid-70s, I discovered Stephen King, and the rest is history.

So I was already minded to read through the NPR list of 100 favourite horror stories before it was drawn to my attention by my blog-chum Susan via her Facebook page, quickly followed by another blog-chum Daphne, whose post on the list is worth reading.

So as I can’t resist this sort of thing, I ran through the list and was pleased to see that I had read 34 of the titles and already owned a further 14 with plans to read them at some point.

Of course, I found even more on the list that I would like to read in future, and have a wish list so that I won’t forget what they are. I thought I’d include them here in case any of you are interested 🙂

  • Peter Straub – Shadowland – if you had asked me I would have said that I had already read this but apparently not
  • Ann & Jeff VanderMeer – The Weird – a compendium of strange and dark stories per the subtitle (I love Mr VanderMeer, he is awesome)
  • Kai Ashante Wilson – The Devil in America – Scant years after the Civil War, a mysterious family confronts the legacy that has pursued them across centuries, out of slavery, and finally to the idyllic peace of the town of Rosetree.
  • Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse – I read quite a few of Poppy’s works back in the day but didn’t get to this one
  • Gemma Files – Experimental Film – I enjoy a good downward spiral in my horror fiction, and this has to do with movies which are my other great love
  • Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching – a spine-tingling tribute to the power of magic, myth and memory
  • Livia Llewellyn – Furnace – a short story collection by an author nominated on multiple occasions for a Shirley Jackson Award
  • Sarah Monette – The Bone Key – confession time; I’ve already bought this one!
  • Michael McDowell – The Elementals – though long uninhabited, the third house is not empty
  • Robert Marasco – Burnt Offerings – apparently Stephen King has acknowledged this novel as having influenced The Shining, and there’s a film version which I may have to hunt down….
  • David Wong – John Dies at the End – horror meets comedy….
  • Kathe Koja – Cipher – winner of the 1991 Bram Stoker award
  • Victor LaValle – The Ballad of Black Tom – jazz age New York and a black protagonist in a story confronting the inherent racism in HP Lovecraft’s work (which all of us who love his stuff need to acknowledge)
  • Christopher Buehlman – Those Across the River – an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations [a] presence that demands sacrifice
  • Algernon Blackwood – The Willows – a classic from one of the masters

Looking forward to the long winter nights with this lot…….

 

 

Tuesday is the New Sunday

IMG_2021Salon posting is a little late this week because the Book God and I were away for the weekend with the Jeff Hawke Club. We stayed at West Dean College in Sussex, a fabulous place which focusses on art and conservation and offers lots of courses at all levels.

There may have been a list to the craft shop where money may have changed hands for art supplies. There was certainly a lot of rain and quite a bit of Prosecco.

But you all want to know about the books….

Books finished:

  • Victorians Undone – a post will follow (also 51 down, 1 to go to meet my 2018 reading target)

Currently reading:

  • Night Film
  • The Cabin at the End of the World

New Books:

  • The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas – a time travel murder mystery
  • Lethal White by Robert Galbraith – the fourth Cormoran Strike novel
  • Queen Victoria by Lucy Worsley – HMQV through her diaries
  • Follow Me by Angela Clarke – all about the scariness of social media, like we need to be reminded 🙂
  • Wychwood: Hallowdene by George Mann – Reporter. Local Witch. Excavation of grave. Won’t end well
  • I Always Find You by John Ajvide Lindqvist – Something strange is going on in the building’s basement – and the price of entry is just a little blood.
  • The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thompson – Detective Darnell died before he closed the case. Can his daughter solve it thirty years later?
  • The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler – The groundbreaking first novel in the bestselling Joona Linna thriller series. Perfect for fans of Jo Nesbo. As stated by Amazon
  • An Absolutely Remarkable Think by Hank Green – impact of social media; when something astonishing happens how does it affect the people sharing it on the interwebs?

Other stuff:

As it was so wet we curtailed our outings at the weekend, but before that we did manage to visit Butser Ancient Farm – this is a fascinating place which is a centre for experimental archaeology, demonstrating daily life in ancient Britain. It has buildings from the late Iron Age in pre-Roman times, as well as a reconstruction of a Roman villa. Here are a couple of photos.

Hope you have a great reading week.

#ReadingMuriel2018 : Update

IMG_1998As part of relaunching my blog I took some time to look at the various projects and challenges I’ve been involved in this year, and realised that not only had I not kept on top of writing up my thoughts on re-reading Muriel Spark, I had actually basically stopped taking part.

Thinking about it I realised that although I’ve been reading so much more this year (I’m now only one book away from my 2018 target) I’ve been feeling increasingly overwhelmed where I’m reading to a plan. This has been partly my own fault – instead of selecting one or two books from each phase of the project, I tried to read them all. And now I don’t want to read any more of them, at least for the foreseeable future.

I also wanted to close things off properly, so here are my thoughts on Phase 3

The Driver’s Seat (1970)

My edition is from 1974 (with Elizabeth Taylor on the cover); I first read this in 1981 and this is my third time of reading.

This is undoubtedly one of the strangest books I have read, focussing as it does on Lise, who (spoiler alert – not really, we find out what happens quite early on in the novel) heads off to an unnamed southern city to effect her own murder. It’s all presented matter-of-factly and we are given no idea as to why she is doing this, just that it seems to be what she wants, and all of her actions up to the point of her death are deliberate and designed to get her noticed. I found it more compelling on this third go round, and would love to see how they filmed it.

Not to Disturb (1971)

My copy is the 1981 Granada edition with a beautiful Atkinson Grimshaw cover. I bought this to complete my collection, given that I had first read this in a library copy back in (I think) 1978. This makes it the fourth time I’ve read the book, and you can tell by the fact I’ve included a quote above that it’s one of my favourites.

I think this is sort of a companion piece to The Driver’s Seat, inasmuch as it once again focuses on the steps leading up to a violent act, but this time from the perspective of onlookers. The staff of a wealthy family are busily preparing themselves for an event they know is coming but hasn’t happened yet, and they expect to do very well out of it having arranged interviews and film deals and new positions once the crime is discovered. How they knew this was all going to happen is of course a mystery – even if you could predict how events are likely to unfold, how would you know exactly when it was going to happen? once of her creepiest books, but in a good way.

The Hothouse by the East River (1973)

Again, read this for the first time in 1981, I have the 1977 edition and this was the third read.

I’ve always been slightly ambivalent about Hothouse, largely because I haven’t ever settled in my own mind what was actually going on. Still not sure, though i enjoyed reading it again.

The Abbess of Crewe (1974)

This is the fifth time I’ve read this book, and I read it first in the late seventies (before I started keeping records of my reading – yes I have a spreadsheet, no I’m not at all ashamed).

The Abbess is up there with Miss Brodie as a wonderful creation, mistress of her own fate. The novel is of course Watergate in a convent and it’s great fun (if you’re mildly obsessed with Watergate as I confess I am) trying to spot which nun/priest is based on which Nixon associate. It’s very funny and extremely sharp and again made into a film – I think with Glenda Jackson? One of the novels I keep coming back to because I enjoy it so much.

The Takeover (1976)

My copy is from 1978, this is the second time I read it.

It’s not one of my favourites though of course it’s beautifully written, I just didn’t really like any of the characters but didn’t dislike them enough to want to watch everything fall apart. If  I’m honest I’m not likely to return to this again.

Not only did I not finish the last book in Phase 3 (Territorial Rights, if you are interested), I didn’t even start it…….

So this was fun while it lasted but I don’t feel sad about putting the remaining books aside for now; it feels the right thing to do.

Still love her though 🙂

 

Exhibition Time: Empire of the Sikhs

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The Brunei Gallery – part of the School of African and Oriental Studies – hosted (or I should say is hosting; doesn’t close until 23 September) an exhibition on what is described as

the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian sub-continent

I know very little about the Sikh empire so was happy to accompany the Book God and learn what I could, especially as we had recorded (but not yet watched) a BBC documentary on Maharajah Duleep Singh – more about that later – so the timing seemed fortuitous.

The exhibition was really impressive, with a range of artefacts from an enormous decorative cannon to beautiful miniatures and exquisite jewellery. There was also a really helpful and well-designed timeline on one of the walls which described the key events in the development and history of that part of India against what was happening elsewhere in the world at each stage.

Favourite Facts

Maharajah Ranjit Singh – The Napoleon of the East, he set up a modern army which included a number of Europeans. Members of his army served under strict conditions including growing a beard, not eating beef, not smoking and marrying locally. Some of the European soldiers had served with Napoleon and joined the army after his defeat.

IMG_1981The Koh-i-Noor – the exhibition includes a replica of the diamond in it’s original setting, showing how large it was before Prince Albert got his hands on it and had it re-cut for Queen Victoria.

Maharajah Sir Duleep Singh – he came to the throne when he was five years old, was kidnapped and controlled by the British government in India before being exiled so that he would not become the focus of rebellions against British rule. He understandably had an unhappy life, converting to Christianity and then back to the Sikh faith, railing against his appalling treatment at the hands of the British. He died relatively young at the age of 55. His story is told in a documentary recently shown on the BBC [The Stolen Maharajah: Britain’s Indian Royal] sadly not current available on the iPlayer. We’re not very good at accepting our awful behaviour as an Imperial power, and it’s right that we are made to see how shabbily we treated him.

5e0aca04d528f140475fcf347bd0e96aPrincess Sophia Duleep Singh – my new girl crush. A god-daughter of Queen Victoria, she lived in a grace & favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace for many years. She is best known as an active member of the Suffragette movement alongside the Pankhursts, and was notoriously arrested several times for refusing to pay taxes without having the right to vote. She fascinated me so much that I bought Anita Anand’s biography of her [Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, Bloomsbury 2015]

A really enjoyable experience.