Category Archives: Reviews

Writing worth reading #2

Here are another five recommendations from the list of books that I have read so far this year. Like last time, these are books that I can actively recommend, either because they kept me reading frantically, or because they were really interesting, if not necessarily easy reads. I make no claims that any of these books is ‘beautifully written’ or may have any literary pretensions, simply that I found them good reads.

1. Are we Rome? by Cullen Murphy. This was fascinating. We are all, I think used to the comparisons between modern Western culture and that of ancient Rome. There is, I think, a certain smugness in the feeling that we are Rome’s successors. However, this book provides a thought provoking and worrying analysis of why Rome collapsed that we can compare with our culture. Well worth the read, even if you don’t agree with the conclusions.

2. Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer. I am always going to include Heyer in this sort of list, because I love her books. This is another of her detective novels, and an early one at that, written in 1933. A classic country house novel, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

3. The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. I’m always a bit suspicious about crime novels that turn non-detective historical people into detectives. It never seems to ring quite true to me. This one is different. Sigmund Freud on a trip to New York working out whodunnit. A great, page-turning read. And the arguments between Freud and Jung are superb.

4. Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor. Another mystery novel, I’m afraid, and historical one at that. This is set in the 1930s, and has at its heart a rather sad story, which I won’t divulge because it would spoil the plot. It has a nicely complicated plot with numerous layers and twists. Kept me reading.

5. The Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones. There seem to have been a lot of books translated from Spanish lately. This is a straight historical novel set in Barcelona in the mid fourteenth century. It’s not just another plague novel, of which there seem to be one or two about at the moment, but much larger in sweep than that. The translation is good too which always helps.

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Writing Worth Reading

I hadn’t realised it had been quite so long since I had posted here. I have, of course been keeping my reading list up to date, but somehow seem to have lost interest in writing full length reviews. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the occasional batch of mini reviews, which is what this post is all about. So, going back to the start of this year, here are five books that I think are worth reading.

1. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Great literature it ain’t, but this light novel keeps the attention for a few hours. Witty, well written, and well researched this historical romance is a classic of the genre.

2. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Any historian knows that going back to the primary sources is essential. Thus with Darwin. So much has been written and said about what he wrote, both good and bad, that it makes sense to read the original. It’s not easy reading – he was a Victorian gentleman after all – and his sentence structure and language are complex, but it is worth the effort.

3. In search of the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. I’ve read a couple of Dalrymple’s books before – he writes really insightful travel books. This one is about a trip from Turkey through Syria, Jordan, the Lebanon, and Israel recreating the journey of a 5th century saint. In it he examines the destruction of various middle eastern Christian denominations, particularly in Turkey over the last century, and uncovers yet another tragedy of that tragedy struck region. I’ve travelled in the area and have been to many of the places he mentions, but even if you haven’t, it’s a good, thought provoking read.

4. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Diamond is always good for answering the big questions of history. In this case why did the West industrialise first? Bringing in geography and ecology, this is a fascinating read, and well worth the effort as it’s very long and the print minute.

5. The Sacred Cut by David Hewson. Another Nic Costa thriller from Hewson. I discovered this hugely enjoyable contemporary Italian set crime series when I worked in a library, not previously having been much interested in contemporary crime. As far as I can tell, it’s well researched and the main character is sufficiently different to keep one’s attention. Good stuff.

Still fabulous: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

It’s not often that I do movie reviews in this blog, but since this is a special film it deserves a special mention. I was lucky enough to attend the world première of the film in Dublin last week, and as I’ve never been to one before it was quite an experience. Everyone was in their best togs but it was a bit disconcerting to see people with buckets of popcorn – it didn’t seem quite right somehow. But what a relief to see a film without twenty minutes of ads beforehand!
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Aye, see him: The house with Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown (1901)

This is a classic of Scottish literature that many non Scots will not have come across. Actually, a lot of Scots won’t have come across it either. This is most likely because it was only Brown’s second book – he died the year after it was published, and the other was published under a pseudonym. It is generally seen as a rejoinder to the sickly, sentimental fiction known as the Scottish kailyard, popular in the late nineteenth century.

I could perhaps best summarise this book as Lewis Grassic Gibbon meets the Mayor of Casterbridge, to give an idea of what it’s about. It shows rural Scots society in an altogether different light from that of the Kailyard, and I’m sorry to say, it’s a portrait that I still recognise to some degree in contemporary Scots culture – all small minded niggling and ‘ah kent his faither’.
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Kissing cousins: Next of Kin by John Boyne (2006)

Set against a background of the abdication crises of 1936, with the plot deftly woven between real events, this erudite and entertaining historical thriller has a neat twist at the end.
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Shooting Lions & Tigers: Manly Pursuits by Ann Harries (1999)

This book had been sitting on Mt TBR for over two years before I finally got around to reading it the other week. It started off well, and I was enjoying it, but it seemed to run out steam a bit, or perhaps I did, and it took me far longer than I would have liked to finish it. It is well written, ludicrously funny in places, and yet it never really sparked for me.

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Birds of a feather: The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black aka John Banville (2007)

I was intrigued by the first novel in this new series by the pseudonymous Black, Christine Falls, which I reviewed last year. As I recall the thing that struck me most was the way the protagonist, Quirke lacked a first name – he still does. Is this literary pretentiousness on the part of Banville, or merely lack of imagination? Whichever, I find it’s beginning to grate. And get in the way of the story, which is always bad, especially when, as here, the story is actually pretty good. But then I know nothing about the working practices of pathologists in 1950s Ireland, and it may be total mince for all I know.

The story begins naturally, with a body. This time of an apparent suicide. Quirke is asked to do the autopsy by the body’s grieving husband; an old chum of Quirke’s that he hasn’t seen for years. Billy Hunt is desperate that his beloved’s body not be cut up, and Quirke agrees. But then he finds puncture wounds on the woman’s arm, and his curiosity gets the better of him. As in Christine Falls we have a picture of a society where inconvenient answers, indeed inconvenient questions are swept under the carpet, and the road to find the truth about the woman’s death is rocky indeed. Along the way, Banville creates a wonderfully evocative atmosphere that is so grim and claustrophobic that it makes you wonder how on earth Quirke is going to stay on the wagon until the end of the book.

I understand Banville is very dismissive of these two novels, claiming to have knocked them out in six weeks. Well good luck to him – I wish I could write that fast.