Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: September 2011 (page 1 of 3)

A Busman’s Holiday …

The Maintenance of Headwayby Magnus Mills

I’ve read and loved three of Mills’s previous novels – especially All Quiet on the Orient Express, (review here).  They’re deadpan, full of black humour, and expound upon the trials and tribulations of the ordinary working man.   He’s dealt with fence installers, odd jobbers, and White Van Man; in The Maintenance of Headway he tackles bus drivers.  Mills, of course, is famous for having been a bus driver for a while, so surely he could nail his former profession?

The answer is yes, but.  Yes, life in this bus garage feels horribly real. But, it’s rather boring.  There’s only so much you can say about a particular bus route and the bus drivers that travel it, which is probably why this book is a short one.  As for the subject of the title – the fabled rather totalitarian ideal of all buses running on time and at the appropriate gaps – time-keeping is rather a dry concern.  However, I don’t remember a single instance in this story about a driver actually running on time, they prefer to run early and never late if they can help it.

That’s not to say the book is without humour, and, like Blakey in the old 1970s TV comedy On the Buses, most of the laughs are at the bus inspectors’ expense, especially when the drivers are discussing them at tea-time….

‘What Breslin attempted this morning was a form of alchemy,’ he continued. ‘If he’d have left the buses to sort themselves out they’d most probably have been back in the desired sequence after a couple of hours. Instead he tried to dispel chaos at a stroke, and as usual nobody gained. The fact is it’s almost impossible to run a proper bus service in this city. The forces ranged against you are just too numerous. I know there are cities on the continent where buses are a byword for efficiency, and people wonder why it can’t happen here. But those places are bland and featureless. Mostly they’ve been bombed flat and rebuilt from scratch; the roads are spacious and the populations obedient, rational and unselfish. Buses sweep along keeping exactly to schedule, punctual at every point from start to finish. In this city it’s different. The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless quares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row. All those shops, and all those pedestrians pouring into the road. Then there are the daily incidentals: street markets, burst water mains, leaking gas pipes, diesel spillages, resurfacing works, ad hoc refuse collections, broken-down vehicles, troops on horseback, guards being changed, protest marches, royal cavalcades and presidential motorcades. Shall I go on?’

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book, just not as much as the others of his I’ve read. It all seemed too real, lacking the surreal bite and sense of danger present in The Restraint of Beasts or All Quiet on the Orient Express. Maybe it was a little too much of a busman’s holiday. (6.5/10)

I am looking forward to his new novel though, A cruel bird came to the next and looked in, which sounds like a return to the surreal and is also set in a fictional empire which suggests Gulliver meets Gormenghast to me – can’t wait!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Maintenance of Headway Bloomsbury pbk, 160 pages.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in

The winners are …

Thank you very much to everyone who stopped by to wish my blog a happy third birthday, and left me with some great reading suggestions – all appreciated.

Now to my giveaway. There are three of the best books I’ve read during the three years of my blog on offer…

I employed the services of my daughter as chief picker-outer of names and the three winners are:

JuxtabookKerry Carola

Well done! I’ll be in contact soon to get your addresses and choice of book.

Cold war secrets the spooks can’t hide …

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

We know about the Cambridge Five – Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt. What if there had been a sixth man in this spy ring?  What if that sixth man wanted to tell his story? What if his story could cause shame not just to the Russians but the British government as well? These are the questions that Charles Cumming’s exciting spy thriller seeks to answer.

Respected academic Sam Gaddis is in debt, badly. The advance for a new book would do the trick – but what can Sam, an expert on the Cold War and Russian secret service, has no idea for a new angle though. Then his best friend, journalist Charlotte Berg invites him to co-write a book with her – she has a scoop in the offing, she’ll tell him more later. But before they can get together to start thinking about the book, Charlotte dies. Was it murder? (Of course it was, but Sam doesn’t know that at first).

Sam starts to investigate from Charlotte’s papers, and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a deep web of intrigue that put him in danger. As he pieces information together, the plot takes us from London to Winchester before heading off all around Europe.  Gaddis may be a expert historian, but he is an amateur spy.  He is lucky though, and without always knowing, he manages to stay one step ahead of those who want his investigation closed down.

This is a complex story of cross and double cross in which you have to keep your wits about you. The pace doesn’t let up either, and the action easily matches the detective work to give a good balance.  Modern spycraft is well to the fore which always makes for interesting reading and was reassuringly not as over the top as in Spooks, (which I do adore).  Cumming is being rated as a successor to Le Carré, and you know, they may just be right – and I don’t mind having to read more to see if I really agree.  (8.5/10)

See also Elaine thought of it at Random Jottings.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. Harper pbk Sept 11, 416 pages.

Gaskella’s Blog-Birthday Giveaway update

Just popping in to say I’ll make the draw for my blog’s birthday giveaway on Saturday, so if you want to be included, leave a comment letting me know what’s the best book you’ve read this year by the end of tomorrow (Friday). The full details arecan be found here

War & Peace – without much peace, but with added Vampires…

It’s that time of year again when I like to pepper my reading with a bit of blood and gore and undead creatures.  I won’t be reading all vampires and zombies – the plan is to alternate roughly, so do come back later if the undead are not your thang!

My first book in the Transworld Book Group challenge however fits the bill perfectly to kick off Gaskella’s new … Duh-duh-daaah!…

Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1) by Jasper Kent.

I have read War and Peace, so I know a little bit about Napoleon v. General Kutozsov, the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and I’m sure we all know that Napoleon had to retreat and Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture to commemorate it.

This military setting forms the backbone of this novel as we follow the exploits of Captain Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his small band of officer comrades.  They work as a kind of elite force, spying on the French and using guerilla tactics to keep one step ahead. It’s hard work though – Alexei lost two fingers when he was captured in a previous campaign.

It’s not going well for the Russians, and Dmitry, nominally in charge of Alexei’s group, has taken matters into his own hands. He has engaged a band of mercenaries whom he met in the Balkans to help. He explains that they’re like the monks the Tsar once had as a bodyguard – the ‘Oprichniki’. The Balkans will act as a guerilla force to pick off a few French soldiers here and there and generally sow fear amongst them.  Dmitry explains …

‘They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished.’ None of us quite followed Dmitry’s meaning. ‘The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy.’
‘I’m not sure they’ll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile,’ I said.
‘There are rewards other than gold,’ said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. ‘They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore.’

They are a scary band of chaps, and they certainly go to work with relish – but then they would be, the Oprichniki are vampires.  It’s obvious from the start to us the reader what they are, but it takes Alexei some time to cotton on, and then he becomes a man with a rather different mission.

Meanwhile, in between bouts of spying on the French and haring around the place trying to catch up with his fellow officers, Alexei hangs around Moscow, where he acquires a mistress – a posh prostitute called Domnikiia. Alexei’s wife and young son remain in Petersburg – he feels little guilt though, and continued encounters with the Oprichniki give him no time to consider his position.

Then, of course, there’s a third element after the French and vampires to do battle with – the weather.  It’s winter, and a foodless, occupied Moscow is no place to hang out for humans – the vampires do OK though!

At the beginning of this book, I had wondered whether the military setting would overshadow the rest of the story, which was something I found slightly with The Officer’s Prey – a Napoleonic military detective story by Armand Cabasson I read a couple of years ago.  Twelve though, with its domestic sections in Moscow, came alive in a less soldierly fashion.

Although this book was rather long at 539 pages, and took a little while to get into, I did enjoy it.   It does have a high gore and violence count, but these vampires are the real thing – proper nasty blood-drinking, flesh-rending, sunshine hating, superhuman monsters from the borders of Europe and Asia.   Twelve in the first in a planned quintet of novels – would I read another?  Next vampire season certainly!  (7.5/10)

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My copy was supplied by the publisher, Transworld – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1)by Jasper Kent – paperback 539 pages
Thirteen Years Later (Danilov Quintet 2)
The Third Section (Danilov Quintet 3)
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The Officer’s Prey: The Napoleonic Murders by Armand Cabasson.

Moviewatch – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

On Friday afternoon I went to the cinema by myself for the first ever time, and I sat in front of the screen with roughly twenty other moviegoers to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the day it opened. I didn’t need company, for I was totally engrossed for a full 127 minutes by this wonderful film.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, all I will say is that it’s set during the cold war, and after Control’s death, George Smiley – former Secret Intelligence Service spymaster is brought out of forced retirement to run a clandestine mission to seek out a Soviet mole in the heart of the upper echelons of the ‘Circus’.

The look of the film is pitch perfect. Being set during the early 1970s, the backgrounds are full of that particularly nasty brown that hides the cigarette fug, and outside everything is grey in the shadowy twilight world of the spooks.

This film is a thinking person’s spy movie. Although there are moments of action, most of it is conversation, observation and contemplation.  Indeed George Smiley, although often in shot, doesn’t speak for around the first fifteen minutes. Instead he quietly watches and absorbs.

Gary Oldman has, for me, made George Smiley his own.  I hadn’t thought anyone could surpass Alec Guinness in the classic BBC adaptation, but his Smiley is a masterclass in stillness, making every little glance and every word count.  You sense that he is seething underneath though he’s that intense, yet he hides his emotions so well – Guinness appears an empty shell in comparison.

Oldman has a wonderful supporting cast with John Hurt as Control, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s wingman Peter Guillam, Mark Strong (who can do no wrong) as the wronged agent Jim Prideaux, and a cameo from Kathy Burke as dear old Connie, plus the quartet of other suspects …

Told partly in flashback, there are some wonderful scenes – particularly of the office Christmas party at the Circus where all they all sing the Russian national anthem! However, this is given a sad edge by Smiley seeing his wife in a fumble with another man.  In the TV series, we got to see both Smiley’s wife Anne, and his Russian opponent Karla, although Karla never spoke.  In the film, we never fully see Anne, and Smiley recounts the tale of how he met Karla to Guillam in one memorable scene where he almost lets himself go.

Directed by Swede Tomas Alfredson  of the wonderful vampire film Let the Right One in,  the film has a similar feel of light and dark; the dark being claustrophobic yet having time to let things play out fully.  The screenplay successfully distils the essence of the novel brilliantly, without leaving any big plot holes or losing key characters.

I would have been happy to immediately watch this film again it was that good, and Oldman is a revelation as Smiley where less is more.  I can’t wait for the Blu-ray and must re-read the book! (10/10)

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To explore on Amazon UK, click below:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy : Complete BBC Series [DVD] [1979] starring Alec Guinness
Let The Right One In [DVD] directed by Tomas Alfredson

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