Book review: Moriarty

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Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: ★★★☆☆

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A private detective from an American agency, Frederick Chase, arrives in London to investigate the brutal murder of his former coworker in a quiet London suburb. Chase’s investigation, taking place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, brings him into contact with the Scotland Yard Inspector, Athelney Jones, a keen student of Holmes’ famous detecting skills. Their pairing leads them into a dangerous investigation into the shady underworld of a new wave of American crime sweeping London.

In depth: Firstly I must admit this book was an impulse buy. Firstly for its title: Moriarty is a character who greatly interests me and this is mainly down to the marvellous depiction by Andrew Scott in the BBC hit series Sherlock. Secondly, the simple but alluring cover art of a Victorian London with St. Pauls Cathedral towering over a smoke filled London skyline.

I was also not aware of the prequel to this novel also by Anthony Horowitz, interestingly the only author to have ever been granted permission by the family of Conan Arthur Doyle to add to the Holmes canon. However, although a novel with a almighty plot twist, which I genuinely did not see coming, I found this book underwhelming and at best rather average.

The narrator, Frederick Chase, arrives in Switzerland at the body of the criminal mastermind Moriarty who had supposedly fell to his death alongside his arch nemesis Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. Here Chase meets the other main character, Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a keen student knowledgeable of the many wondrous ways of the great detective. The pair quickly spark up an investigative relationship which is obviously meant to mirror that of Holmes and Watson.

However the pair’s investigations centre not on the mystery of Moriarty’s and Holmes’ deaths, but on finding an unseen American criminal mastermind, known as Clarence Devereux, who they suspect is attempting to replace Moriarty and make London his own. Although central to the later plot twist, most of the plot actually fills like a second rate version of a Holmes/Watson tale with characters with little backstory and, frankly, of little interest. Even the murder teased at on the back cover of the novel, of a former coworker of Chase’s from the American private investigatory firm, receives scant attention.

The new supervillian Clarence Devereux turns out to be an American disguised as a diplomat hiding behind the jurisdictional protection of the American Embassy in London. His is a character not revealed to late, and of no major interest, and his lesser American criminal allies who make up most of the novel are of even less interest.

To the authors credit there are a number of things this book does well. Horowitz’s Victorian London is a wonderful setting, particularly its dark and dangerous docks in the East End the perfect scene for a number of pursuits by Chase and Jones. There are also one or two familiar characters from the Holmes canon such as Lestrade from Scotland Yard and the choice of Anthenly Jones as a central character is a neat one as he actually appears as a minor character, depicted as a useless policeman, in an original Sherlock story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.”

However the characters of Holmes and Moriarty (both said to be dead) or even Dr. Watson are hardly mentioned until a late plot twist. Although no doubt a surprise and logically astute, the book’s narrator Chase is revealed to be Professor Moriarty, who has used Scotland Yard and Jones to find his elusive rival Devereux. The books most interesting passages are when the narrator briefly retells the plot through this new scope, a murder investigated in the book was actually carried out by the narrator. The author then actually candidly challenges the reader as to why this makes sense as the name which adorns the book is of course Moriarty and it should be no surprise that it is his story contained within.

Although undoubtedly clever, this plot twist, as well as the conclusion of the story, which sees Moriarty murder Jones, kidnap Devereux and concludes by deciding to travel back to the USA to take over his criminal network there, are ultimately underwhelming. It may seem harsh but they do not feel worth the slog that is the preceding investigations of second rate American villains by Chase/Jones.

The book is then strangely concluded by a separate short story which does actually in fact centre on Holmes and Watson. This is, I think, unrelated to the preceding story and probably the best part of Horowitz’s strange and underwhelming book. Maybe another sequel with the return of Holmes and Watson in the same universe as Moriarty is in order.

Have you read this book? Do you agree with my review or did you have a different take on it? Do you think that modern authors can productively add to famous old stories? Please your comments below.

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Book review: Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s Spanish football expert, takes a look at one of football’s fieriest rivalries through the lenses of the history of modern Spain.

In Depth: Published in 2013, arguably at its recent and super-charged height, Sid Lowe charts the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona from its deep beginnings in early 20th century Spain.

The book starts with a short history of the clubs and Spain. It identifies the widespread assumption that Real Madrid represent the centralised Spanish State. This comes from its Royal (so therefore Real) patronage as well as its historical association with the Francoist dictatorship. On the other side of the rivalry stands Barcelona, the chief outpost of the Republic and victim of the Spanish Civil War, with its passionately defended Catalonian identity. Although instantly recognisable, and the basis of this book, Lowe quickly challenges this distinction and argues persuasively that the Spanish Civil War was a much more complex conflict, particularly in its relation to these two clubs.

Challenging the historiography of the period, something you wouldn’t expect of a book primarily about football, Lowe outlines how the city of Madrid, as much as Barcelona, suffered at the hands of the Spanish Civil War. Presenting the conflict as Franco/Spain vs the Republic/Catalonia, and ergo Madrid vs Barca, is therefore too simplistic. This is also a product of decades of bitter rivalry between these clubs, where these identifies have been both imposed by rivals as well as acted up to.

After this chapters are chronologically ordered and focus on individual players or teams from the clubs overlapping histories. Highlights include; the politics behind Barcelona’s signing of their first post civil war star László Kubala; the deep history of controversial referees in El Clásico matches, one ref was beaten up by Madrid players after a defeat to Barca; the management of Barcelona by the English coach Vic Buckingham, who also managed Ajax and helped to indoctrinate a young Johan Cruyff into the virtues of the ‘total football’ philosophy; the shocking but widespread use of bonuses by the rivals to motivate smaller clubs when facing their rivals, an extreme example was when Madrid could have won the league on the last day of the 1991-2 season away to Tenerife but lost 3-2 after Barca had offered Tenerife a sizeable bonus to win; the ‘dream team’ of early ’90s Barca with Cruyff as manager and the talents of Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário who won four consecutive league titles and the clubs first European cup at Wembley in 1992; the initial success, but then intrigued political downfall, of Louis Van Gaal during his first Barca spell; the extravagant but disastrous Galácticos policy of Florentino Pérez in the early 2000s; and the rise of the Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and it’s superstar Lionel Messi. The final chapter brings the rivalry up to the titanic, but exhausting, battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.

One particularly interesting chapter looks at the Real legend Alfredo Di Stéfano. Signing for, and very almost spending his career at Barca, Di Stéfano was controversially stole at the last minute by Madrid, supposedly with the help of the regime. Here the book is very much a true history book, focusing on archive materials uncovered by Lowe of Francoist reports on Di Stéfano and his suitability for Real rather than Barca. Lowe comments that this signing, and how it happened and was perceived, secured the early image of Barca as the victim of the centralised Madrid. Lowe then looks at the famous five consecutive European Cups Madrid won in the 1950s, largely driven by Di Stéfano’s genius. This is pinpointed as central to Madrid’s identity and shows why the European Cup remains Madrid’s obsession today. One great passage from the night of Madrid’s fifth consecutive European Cup final at Hampden Park, with some 127,621 in attendance, where Santiago Bernabéu told his players that “Man has five senses and five fingers on each hand … You have four European cups.” Madrid duly went on to win 7-3 against Eintracht Frankfurt in a match so brilliant BBC Scotland continued to show it every year at Christmas.

In the interest of balance one final chapter of note looks at Helenio Herrera, Barca manager from 1958-1960, who won back to back La Liga titles in a turbulent reign during Madrid’s period of European dominance. Lowe brilliantly compares Herrera’s arrival at Barca to José Mourinho’s at Madrid in 2010: the worlds most famous manager, who (initially) had the media eating out of the palm of his hands and who employed a direct & physical tactical approach to overcome his rival’s technical gifts. Aside from this there are hilarious, but quite worrying, anecdotes of how Herrera hired a man to sleep with the girlfriend of a player who was too besotted about her to effectively concentrate on football. And also how “amid countless rumours, Barcelona’s doctor was forced to deny that the ‘sugar’ supplements that Herrera handed out were something else altogether … [as] players complained that they couldn’t sleep after games.”

Overall this book is a wonder for any football fan. Lowe’s interviews with past players from Madrid and Barca are a particular highlight as they include all of the star players and coaches mentioned, demonstrating the respect he is held in in Spain.

Best quote: “We creat ballon d’ors, others buy them.” Joan Laporta, former Barcelona President.

Have you read any books on football which rival this one? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

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Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

Review: Modern Romance

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: One of the USA’s funniest young comics, alongside a leading sociologist, takes an insightful look at romance in today’s digital age.

In-depth: The best characteristic of this book is it’s ability to introduce in-depth sociological and psychological terms in a funny and easy to relate to way. It looks at how the rapid developments in technology and communication in recent decades have driven changes in the attitudes, as well as the behaviour, of those seeking romance.

The book is centred around the recent changes to perceptions of love and more specifically marriage. The authors identify a shift from the ‘good enough’ marriage model of the war-time/post-war generations. This consisted of finding someone normally from your immediate neighbourhood who was ‘good enough’, so essentially someone who isn’t a serial killer, and then marrying them at a very young age. This is contrasted with the current concept, which views romance and love as the pursuit of the one perfect soulmate who is ‘out there’ somewhere.

Much of the stress of modern romance derives from this conception, but the authors state that although often a much longer, wider and stressful search, the results if successful can be much more fulfilling.

The authors look at how marriages are now taking place at later ages, often coming after a newly emerged life stage of ‘early/emerging adulthood’. Young people can now enjoy experiences previous generations could only have dreamed of, such as traveling the world, trying a number of different jobs before deciding upon a career or taking their time choosing a partner.

Ansari identifies this lifestyle choice as visible in other choices made in today’s internet age. The comforting idea that something of the best possible type is out there for you, waiting to be discovered, drives many individuals in what were once almost thoughtless tasks. Such as deciding which Chinese restaurant to go to tonight? Or which TV series on Netflix to binge next? Now long, online searches, often very dependent on the opinions and views of others, take place before these decision are made. As with romance many people do not just want ‘good enough’ any more.

Ansari looks at the whole host of tools which now drive and affect people’s searches for this romance today including text messaging, online dating sites and apps such as Tinder. By basing the book on focus groups and volunteer case studies there are naturally many cringe-worthy, hilarious or even offensive examples.

One section looks at the minefield of how much people consider the length of time before they respond to interested parties text messages. The book here achieves a wonderful balance of outlining some quite serious scientific research into these areas, which compares the chasing parties to lab animals who have been tested for performing simple tasks for a reward, and the conclusion so eloquently but funnily captured by Ansari. That having the uncertainity of a reward, i.e. a delayed or non existent text response, can “enchance their dopamine levels so that they basically feel coked up.”

Another section looks at dating apps which, after some expected horror stories, also have some reassuringly positive consequences. The privacy afforded by online dating is a blessing, and particularly in more traditional or religious societies. After visiting Qatar the authors outline how youngsters, unable to publicly pursue or obtain romance, use dating apps to organise parties which creates social and romantic encounters simply forbidden elsewhere. Often a hotel room/suite is used a venue and there is the wonderfully ironic use of burkas by young women who can whilst wearing these, anonymously wander into the hotel of the party and find the room where it is taking place.

Overall, and in conclusion, this book is based on the interesting idea that the internet has given people the massive benefits of so much more choice and scope when searching for a partner. However this is wisely, and often humourously, balanced with the many debilitating affects this level of choice can bring.

Have you read this book or anything to do with the world of modern dating or romance? If so, please leave your thoughts below.

Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.

In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.

Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.

Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.

With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”

The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.

In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.

Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”

Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

Please leave your comments below.

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

*Warning this review contains potential plot spoilers*

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: In one of the most famous graphic novels of the 20th century an ageing Bruce Wayne returns as the Caped Crusader to save a Gotham overrun by a murderous new gang called the Mutants. His renewed crusade against crime soon attracts all sorts of attention including from past foes, a new police commissioner and even the US Government backed Man of Steel himself.

In-depth: I’ve felt very underwhelmed by the negative reviews of the recently released Batman vs Superman film. Several friends have also complained of its near meaningless as it descends into a massive CGI fest with the only positive outcome, for its makers, being it’s high takings at the box office. I instead decided to purchase the recently published 30th Anniversary edition of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller et al.

I had heard before hand that this four part series formed the basis of the modern, darker and gritty version of Batman (by far my own personal preference) that we have grown accustomed to largely due to the excellent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films. During reading, this is clear to see in the wonderful, highly self conscious internal thoughts of the characters which make up most of the dialogue.

The story is built up from the crime and violence infested ground of Gotham City. The first part, which gave it’s name to the whole collection, sees an aged, slightly unhinged Bruce Wayne internally fighting the urge to put the Batsuit back on and clear up the city.

From this basis the collection covers much ground and narrative depth; Batman’s origins; Commissioner Gordon’s eventual retirement; the failed rehabilitation of Harvey Dent and his relapse into Two-Face; a first woman commissioner, Yendel, zealously obsessed with bringing the Bat to justice; the recruitment of a new Robin; the return (and gruesome death) of the Joker; a wide array of new technological weapons and the general descent of Gotham into savagery. Even over four issues this is a lot and it offers any Batman fan or newcomer plenty to sink their teeth into.

The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps most famous for its capturing of the Zeitgeist of the time when it was published in 1986. The United States, which here includes Gotham and Metropolis, is racked by Cold War paranoia represented by an escalating crisis firmly within the American sphere of influence on a fictional South American island.

This is coupled with the almost provocatively modern insights which hint at the weakness of civil society. Be that theorists of criminal psychology, represented by psychiatrists defending the Joker and Harvey Dent and instead attributing all blame for their crimes to the Batman. Or the defeatist City Mayor willing to negotiate with the ruthless Mutants gang leader who is instantly slain as soon as he tries to do so. Or the well off lawyer, who of course has never lived in the crime ridden City of Gotham, but defends his clients civil rights against the violence of Batman’s vigilantism.

All these attitudes and characters are satirised and juxtaposed with the reassuringly simple crusade of the Batman. This harks back to the America of the Second World War which was convinced of its role and worth in the world. One can imagine how effective, but also controversial, these reactionary themes were in the 1980s and remain so today.

Batman, like many other superheros, initially served as a form of escapism from everyday life. However Frank Miller’s work dragged Batman, and superheros as a whole, back toward the realities of the real world allowing them to satirise and make cutting political statements whilst entertaining readers.

This underlying ambition is best demonstrated through Superman, here a stooge of the US Government. He is eventually called in to take down Batman after the Government’s disapproval of his vigilantism and its results. However when he is distracted by a nuclear missle launched from the USSR, heroically diverting it from hitting the US, Gotham is thrown into darkness and chaos. My favourite frames are in-fact those after Superman denonates the nuclear missile and is half dead due to his lack of access to the sun.

After the gloriously depicted recovery from this, the final scenes are given to a showdown between Batman and Superman which very almost sees the Man of Steel defeated. Wayne then pulls a concluding trick in convincing the world that he, and the Batman, are dead. The novel concludes with Wayne plotting with Robin and other characters from the DC universe for some grand comeback. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I can’t get my hands on the sequel, the Dark Knight Strikes Again, quickly enough.

Have you read this graphic novel or any others which are similar? Please leave your comments below!

Review: Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh. This review contains spoilers of this novel.

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: After suddenly being expelled from Oxford University Paul Pennyfeather begins a comedic and increasingly dangerous journey through 1920s British society, high and low.

In-depth: I was made aware of this novel, Evelyn Waugh’s first, by David Mitchell choosing it on his Desert Island Discs episode. I purchased it at Hatchards, a wonderful booksellers in Piccadilly, and I was delighted when this store was actually mentioned in this novel.

Known for his cutting satire and black humour, Waugh’s first novel is as funny as it is layered in it’s targeting of all aspects of inter-war British society. On the surface, and for which it gained most attention upon it’s publication in 1928, it is a riotous and funny journey led by Paul Pennyfeather, whose passivity is typical of male narrators of 1920s social satire à la Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and whose sympathetic willingness to listen draws out the stories of the characters but also leads him into unseen dangers.

The title is perhaps a reference to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire series, which charted Rome’s descent from civilised superpower to savagery. It feels as though Waugh’s novel, which includes Churchmen of no faith, drunken teachers who do very little teaching and a prison governer who give dangerous carpentry equipment to homicidal maniacs, is also observing a demise of a once civilised society.

The story begins with Pennyfeather, a young and unassuming undergraduate at the imaginary Scone College of Oxford University, falling foul to the drunken antics of the highly exclusive Bollinger Club. Discovered walking around the college green with no trousers on, after they were stolen by a privileged fellow undergraduate, Paul is swiftly identified as a trouble maker and expelled for his “indecent behaviour”. Desperate for an income he then somehow ends up as a schoolmaster at a unknown public school in Wales.

Most of the first half of the novel takes place at the school, Llanabba Castle, and introduces a number of the schools “preposterous inhabitants”. There is the anxious churchman of Mr Pendergast who constantly doubts his faith, the pathological liar Philbrick and the headteacher Dr. Fagan whose discriminatory views about the Welsh people is rumoured to have mirrored Waugh’s own prejudices. However it is Mr Grimes, who is constantly “in the soup,” which refers to his alcoholism, who undoubtedly steals the show.

From the school onwards Pennyfeather finds himself thrust into a number of adventures which his somewhat benign nature deem him incapable to realise the dangers of. He is instructed to organise a school sports day for the prestigious visit of Ms Beste-Chetwynde, Waugh’s novels are full of seemingly unpronounceable names, and the snobby Lady Circumference, but things quickly descend into farce and scandal.

A loaded pistol is used to start one of the boy’s races which inevitably leads to a boy being shot in the foot. Waugh’s use of characters is ruthless as the reader is later informed that the boy is actually dead in a throwaway comment which receives no follow up or attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waugh’s writing is that it introduces characters in settings which appear believable, deep and permanent but then yanks the reader away from them with sudden and increasingly ridiculous plot twists which refresh the story.

The comedy is kept moving as the reader becomes more aware of the importance of pretence to the story. This is achieved via perceived tragedy at the end of part one, as Mr Grimes escapes an unhappy and rushed marriage to Dr Fagan’s daughter by appearing to kill himself (he later reappears and disappears under different guises) and by love in part two as Pennyfeather quickly stumbles into arranging to marry Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

However, visible throughout many of the character’s conversations, are the underlying tensions and barriers of class, race, sex and nationalism. The characters, largely members of high society which seem to obsess Waugh, are often blissfully unaware of the damaging consequences of these rigid structures as they help form the structure of their gossip, wealth and scandal. The most uncomfortable section for the modern day reader deals with the overt racism  of the time but the satire knows no bounds.  Pennyfeather himself fails to realise the perils of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s grand incomes via the ‘white slavery’ of trading young women, as he is too busy enjoying the public attention he is afforded for their planned marriage.

The final act centres around another delightful plot twist where Pennyfeather’s wedding day at the Ritz Hotel is cut short by a sudden arrest for the above crime. A prison sentence follows, cut short by the ‘legal death’ of Pennyfeather, elaborately organised by his friends, which enables him to flee to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s, now married to a Viscount Metroland, grand villa in Corfu. The story ends with a moustached, and thus suitably disguised, Pennyfeather back at Scone College studying Theology once again witnessing, but this time from a safe distance, the antics of the Bollinger Club. Not so much a decline and fall for it’s central character then but more a brief interlude of wild adventure for a man who wandered.

In all, this is a novel which possesses a comic thrust of ridiculousness and savagery which is at times difficult to associate with the 1920s from which it was produced.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

514Qdz6chmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★★

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A tale of childhood in a small town in 1930s Deep South of the United States. Driven by curiosity, particularly of their reclusive neighbours, two children, Jem and Scout, begin to learn more about the world and its workings through a controversial local court case which their father is the defence lawyer in.

In-depth: I was given this book last summer fully aware of its great legacy. Immediately a classic upon publication and now secure as a central part of American literature. However guiltily I do admit that I did not get round to reading it until prompted by the recent sad news of Harper Lee’s passing.

It is safe to say it’s legacy is completely justified. To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful tale based around the warmth of childhood innocence and curiosity whilst simultaneously revealing so much more about American society.

Based in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, as seen through the eyes of Scout Finch, the early chapters are a journey through the wonders of long summer holidays from school. Allied with her older brother Jem and their visiting friend Dill, the children take an intrusive interest in their strange, reclusive neighbours, the Radleys, who never appear outside of their home.

However their naturally curious actions are fairly schooled at each stage by their father, Atticus Finch, who is now my favourite character in popular literature. Atticus is a pleasantly reasonable lawyer tasked with the socially difficult task in the 1930s of defending a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Conveying fair and enlightened values of justice and anti racism, which he gently bestows and explains to his children, it is a task which dominates the book.

Perhaps what the book is most famous for is it’s remarkable ability to convey such a depth of events and the ideas behind them through it’s wonderfully readable style. The real beauty of this book is that Lee manages to gently but clearly explain horribly adult concepts such as racism, social class and rape. Managing to do this in what is essentially a children’s book, still regularly taught to school children, is quite something.

Unfortunately I did not read the book when I was at school but it also challenges older readers to consider how crazy everyday concepts or issues which control adult life must appear to children. The tragically predictable verdict, at least to an adult aware of the social context of deep racial divisions, of Tom Robinson’s court case is the biggest shock to Jem and the other young characters. Perhaps these reactions aren’t so child like at all.

In all, one of the easiest and warmest books, exceptional given some of its themes, I’ve read in a long time. Now to watch the film from 1962.

Have you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

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Review: Batman – The Killing Joke

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My rating: ★★★★☆

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

The Basics: In one of the most famous Batman graphic novels, which navigates around a twisted past, the Joker launches perhaps his sickest scheme yet to prove to Gotham that even the sanest are just “one bad day” away from his world of madness.

In-depth: To feel the part in New York City last October I equipped myself with a New Yorker Magazine for a princely $8. In the Goings On About Town section I noticed an exhibition entitled ‘Superheros in Gotham’ at the New York Historical Society. Caught up in my moment of serendipity I convinced my friends to give it a try (it didn’t take much) and we walked through Central Park to the Society.

Unfortunately the exhibition wasn’t as good as we were hoping. It was frightfully small with a no photography policy strictly enforced by over keen security guards. The one highlight was seeing the actual Batmobile from the original Batman TV show. Walking back slightly disappointed I spotted some impromptu book stands where I came across The Killing Joke. My mood improved as soon as I started reading it.

At just 46 pages it did not take long and having recently re-read it I decided to review it on this blog. Admittedly it is the first graphic novel I’ve read and it was the perfect choice. “One of the greatest Batman stories” the friendly guy at the stall told me and he was 100% right.

The story is beautifully simple and as quick as it is intense. It centres around perhaps the Joker’s most disturbing scheme. To prove that Gotham can not and should not maintain it’s perverse commitment to law, order and indeed sanity by targeting it’s leading light Commissioner Jim Gordon and by doing this thereby drawing out his arch nemesis: the Batman.

The recently escaped Joker intends to prove a point by driving Gordon mad and show the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It is some bad day for Gordon as the Joker ambushes and shoots his daughter Barbara before his very eyes. Putting a bullet through her spine and having his goons kidnap the distraught Gordon, the Joker then completes what he thinks will be his coup de grâce by undressing the wounded Barbara and photographing her in lurid positions mercifully mostly left to the reader’s imagination by the artist Brian Bolland. It is no surprise that this passage, particularly the use of Barbara as merely a prop to get at her father, caused such a storm after many feminist readers were aghast at its overtly sexist nature.

Having the beaten and stripped Gordon paraded around his new recently acquired fairground, the Joker explains to him his simple choice. He can either suffer the trauma of his memories which through his rationality he still clings to, or choosing the ’emergency exit’ of insanity, flee into the freedom of the chaos which forms the basis of the Joker’s existence and Gotham’s unjust world.

What perhaps makes this novel so famous is it’s revealing of the Joker’s past. Before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime it depicts his failed attempts at being a stand up comedian as well as the crippling anxieties of his fear of failing to support his pregnant wife. That Alan Moore and Bolland are able to present this so deeply in such short spaces shows the intelligence and skill which lies behind every word and sketch in the Killing Joke.

One of my favourite frames is the jump between a tragic past as a failed comedian and husband to the Joker’s scheming at his violently acquired fairground. The (almost)

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The Joker’s past? Deep. Very Deep.
colourless past reaches out to his beautiful wife who is laughing at an accidental joke of his with the reflection of himself in the mirror behind revealing his inner torment of another day of failure. In the next colour filled frame, savagely jolting the reader back to the present, the Joker is instead, in perhaps a rare lapse of sentimentality, reaching out his gloved hand to a ‘Laughing Clown.’ He is met by a reflection errily similar to the previous frame.

The lack of colour in the scenes from the Joker’s past is also significant. Bolland brilliantly chooses single objects to possess the increasingly rageful red which builds up via fly-trapping sticky tape, shrimps and the red-hood worn during the botched robbery where the scared predecessor to the Joker flees the Batman only to fall into a vat of chemicals which produces the Clown Prince of Crime.

The scenes from the past are also deliciously mixed up by the Joker himself, who confused by the madness which now inhibits him, reels off the various other possible personal histories of what sent him over the edge. Such as his wife being murdered by the Mob (in this she supposedly dies in a once in a million electrical accident) or his brother being carved up by a knife welding mugger. This cleverly buys into the wealth of speculative interpretations which exist about the Joker’s past.

Back to the present and after mentally torturing Gordon and believing he has indeed driven the Commissioner mad the Joker gets what he really wants; the arrival of the Batman. After a desperate fight which involves trap doors to doom, knifes, a hall of mirrors and a pretend pistol the Batman eventually wrestles the Joker under his control.

Pleading with him to not continue their duel down the route which will only lead to one of them dying, Batman attempts to reach out to the Joker, briefly hinting at his own knowledge of suffering due to a tragic past, by offering him rehabilitation.

The Joker’s response is, as ever, a joke. Significantly it is about two men trying to escape a lunatic asylum where one offers the other an escape over a bridge of torch light. The joke being you’d have to be crazy to trust the other prisoner to keep the torch on, as oppose to believing you can walk on light.

The Batman then grabs the Joker with the light of the approaching police cars visible. The Joker’s laughter, then uncharacteristicily joined by the Batman’s, fills the night and the final two panels offering an almost completed bridge of light which in the next panel disappears into darkness. Some have interpreted this as the Batman finally killing the Joker, the incessant laughter does suddenly stop, but this is wonderfully left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader.

Review: Bob Dylan – All The Songs

9780316353533The Basics: A song by song account of Bob Dylan’s musical canon to date.

In-depth: As a surprise birthday present this was right up there. Margotin and Guesdon’s collection is mightily impressive and as up to date as is currently possible (running up to 2015’s Shadows in the Night). It is also huge. At 703 pages and a fair weight this hardback is a goldmine for any obsessive Dylan fan or as the authors refer to them: “Dylanologists”.

Using each album as a chapter, with the more significant albums also receiving introductory chapters, Margotin and Guesdon work through song, via an order of technical details, song genesis and lyrics and production. Some outtakes of albums are also considered.

The focus revolves around Dylan’s own creative processes and the level of thought and slow burning genesis is fascinating. There are also little golden nuggets on most songs including noteworthy covers (who knew James Blunt has covered I Want You?) and trivia such as technical musical mistakes which are surprisingly commonplace on earlier tracks. Dylan’s creative processes and influences are so eclectic that the book can only naturally pose as many questions as it can answer, the eternally debated subject of Ballad of A Thin Man is not brought to an end.

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Naturally the best sections revolve around the readers own personal favourites of Dylan’s albums, my own being Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Time Out of Mind.

One slight disappointment is that the edition does not deal with the vast wealth of songs, covers and different versions, contained in the excellent bootleg series. Comment and analysis of say, Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs) or the most recent Volume 12 ( The Cutting Edge) would have been a real treat, particularly the many brilliant songs which somehow did not make it onto studio albums.

This edition delivers on its subtitle of “The Story Behind Every Track” and for any fan of Dylan or indeed music itself is a real treat to be dipped in and out of.