Annabel's House of Books

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

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The 1924 Club

I had every intention of joining in with this lovely project hosted by Simon and Karen.


There was a book on the Wikipedia Literature list for 1924 I had long been intending to read – The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany. I duly ordered a copy – the Fantasy Masterworks edition which has an introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I have read many of the novels in this series over the years, so hopes were high…

King of Elfland's DaughterBut it’s been a severe case of wrong time for reading this book for me. I only got a couple of short chapters in, but the language is too florid and full of multi-claused sentences which start off passively for me at the moment. Here are a couple of examples:

And there with eyes that saw every minute more dimly, and fingers that grew accustomed to the thunderbolts’ curious surfaces, he found before darkness came down on him seventeen: and these he heaped into a silken kerchief and carried back to the witch. (p4)

To the long chamber, sparsely furnished, high in a tower, in which Alveric slept, there came a ray direct from the rising sun. He awoke, and remembered at once the magical sword, which made all his awaking joyous. It is natural to feel glad at the thought of a recent gift, but there was also a certain joy in the word itself, which perhaps could communicated with Alveric’s thoughts all the more easily just as they came from dreamland, which was pre-eminently the sword’s own country; but, however it be, all those that have come by a magical sword have always felt that joy while it still was new, clearly and unmistakably. (p9)

Compared with Star Trek, a Star Wars fan I am not, and I think this Yoda-speak with added clauses would irritate me intensely at the moment if I continued. So I am putting aside the book for another time!

I have, however, previously read and reviewed two titles published in 1924, so I will give them a plug here instead:


“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town” Part Deux

More Holiday Highlights

Halfway through our holiday in New York, and we were in the grips of an Indian summer with temperatures in the mid-70s, which had been perfect for our river cruise the day before. What came next?


198 Thu Smilodon Sabre-toothed tiger (600x800)A day concentrating on the natural world. This meant a crosstown bus through Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History to give it its full name.

209 Thu Ocean hall (800x600)The morning was spent wandering the halls of dinosaurs, fossils,  animal dioramas including the suspended Blue Whale in the Great Ocean Hall, and seeing a live axolotl in one of the special exhibits plus all the gemstones and rocks in the geology section.

223 (800x600)We took our street food lunch into Central Park opposite, and then wandered for a bit past the famous Alice in Wonderland statue before bussing down to Central Park Zoo which was absolutely lovely.

231 (800x600)Juliet and I both love zoos, as long as thought is put into giving the animals a good life there of course. This tiny zoo had red pandas, snow leopards, and a herd of inquisitive chinstrap penguins in its collection. We headed back uptown slightly earlier this day as we had plans for the evening…

We did the Empire State Building at night, going up once dark.  Before you get close to the lifts, you have to walk for what feels like miles between velvet ropes, zig-zagging up and down the mezzanine.  I guess it is designed to minimise queues for the lifts – keep ’em walking – but was just irritating to me!

P1030318 (600x800)

Chrysler from the Empire State Bldg

Once up though, the iconic views open up again and you forget the pain of getting there – your next mission is now to avoid all the buggies pushchairs and selfie sticks (they were everywhere!) to reach the viewpoints to take your own photos. If you want to go up to the 102nd floor observatory from the 86th, it’ll cost you an extra $20 each – we declined.

The Empire State Building  does stay open until 2am when I’m sure it would have been quieter – 8pm was rather busy and no time nor room for pretending you’re meeting someone like Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle.


A change of pace today – although driven out of the hotel early by the noise of the city inspectors who started work shortly after 8am, we headed downtown for a long subway ride to Brooklyn. The heat had broken giving us a crisp, autumn day and we started off browsing the shops in Williamsburg which is cool and hip.  I managed to sneak in my only bookish purchase at Spoonbill & Sugartown while Juliet was browsing a gift and stationery shop next door.  We lunched  at a neighbourhood cafe Fabiane’s, before heading back to Brooklyn Bridge Park and more iconic views back across to Manhattan.P1030431 (800x600)

We dallied with an ice-cream from the Brooklyn Ice-Cream Factory before heading back uptown for more midtown shopping. I did drag my daughter into the cavernous Strand Books for a quick look, but didn’t have the inclination to submit Juliet to being bored while I browsed the second-hand shelves.


P1030456 (800x600)Our last day. After packing and leaving our cases to pick up later, we headed towards the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway.  Rather like the Staten Island Ferry which is free if you don’t get off (you only have to pay coming into Manhattan boarding in S.I.), the R.I.A.T. big cable car ride is the price of a subway ride – or included in a Metrocard. So we went over to the island, confirmed there was nothing to do there (it’s a mix of industrial and residential), and came back – but again you get good views and it’s another different form of transport!

P1030464 (800x600)We lunched in a proper diner, then headed back to Midtown for more shopping – starting at Michael’s  which is an arts and crafts chain a bit like Hobbycraft in the UK, but not as nice. So over to Greenwich Village and Washington Square (right) for a last stop on our touristic itinerary.  It was heaving with buskers, prayer groups, dog-walkers, the young and the old alike.

Getting homesick as you do on your last day of a holiday, we headed back back to the hotel and then to JFK a bit early. Now, we need a holiday from our holiday to recover!

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While there are undoubtedly bargains to be had in New York, Levis for $25 at Century 21 if you can find your size for instance,  T-shirts in H&M 2 for $10 instead of £10 – that sort of thing, you have to search for them. I want a new Swatch Skin watch but the price of $110 everywhere was exactly the same as the £70 in England. The Duty-free at JFK wasn’t worth bothering with it was so expensive (but we did have a tester squirt of perfume each way – as you do!)  US paperbacks are also more expensive than UK ones.  So New York isn’t a good place for bargain hunting unless you have the time for it.

I did get hassled by a homeless guy inside a coffee shop which was a pain. He asked for change. I politely refused.  He asked another lady for change and she bought him a donut and drink – he wasn’t going to say thanks until she prompted him. Then he came back to me, and said ‘The other white lady helped me out’!  I asked him firmly to leave us alone.  He continued to work the other customers, but kept looking my way. The shop staff seemed quite happy with him being in there. I hate being made to feel guilty in such a persistant and irritating way though. (As I had planned to do anyway, I gave all my spare coins to the Virgin children’s charity on the plane home.)

However to end on a positive side, nearly everyone was really friendly – some shop assistants were over-friendly, but others made up for them.  If you looked lost, it is easy to get disoriented at crossroads in NYC, someone would always point you in the right direction. I think it was much friendlier than London in that respect.  I’m looking forward to going back and exploring more of this fascinating city.

“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town” Part One

Holiday Highlights

I finally got a holiday this year. My daughter and I are just back from New York. I’ve been twice before, the last in Feb 2000 when Juliet was a tadpole in my tummy (so I tell her, theoretically she has been before too!) and the Twin Towers were still standing. The aim this time was to concentrate mostly on stuff that would interest Juliet, so fewer museums of the history, archaelology and art side and more shopping and being totally touristy. We arrived Monday mid-afternoon – and getting through immigration and baggage was a breeze at JFK compared with previous visits.

75 Tues Traffic on FDR drive (800x600)

The Harlem river is just beyond the traffic on FDR Drive

Booking a package with Virgin, we’d chosen an affordable apartment hotel, the Marmara Manhattan on the Upper East Side – a little out of the way, but with river views from our 23rd floor window. It’s nice to have a kitchen/lounge area separate from the bedroom.  Little did we know that their ten yearly inspection by the city would begin during our stay. On our last full day we were driven out early by the noise made by the city engineers on the floor above us, the hotel management arranged a complimentary dinner for us at the Italian restaurant next door which made up for it – thank you guys.

6 Marmara Balcony North Subway building site (600x800)

View north from our hotel balcony

However New York is a total building site – not just where we were: outside on 2nd Ave they are building a new subway line. They started early each day, but noise is a constant in New York – wherever you are, there will be sirens all night and manhole covers rattling, so good sleep can be fleeting, even in ‘quieter’ areas.

We got good value from our 7 Day Metro cards ($31 each, cheaper than London) having only to walk one block for buses and two for the Park Ave subway line. Juliet and I became huge fans of the buses in Manhattan, nice to see where you’re going, better crosstown possibilities and less steps than the subway!

So what did we see?  Here are some highlights:


19 Tues Chrysler Lift doors - Copy (600x800)

Chrysler Building Lift Doors

15 Tues Grand Central - Copy (800x600)First stop was Grand Central Station (left), and through it to the beautiful Chrysler Building – the art deco lobby is gorgeous (right). Then Times Square and clothes shopping in the US chain stores – although my daughter found them a bit too blingy in general – we ended up in a home from home in H&M!

41 Top of Rock to Central Park (600x800)

Central Park from the Top of the Rock

Lunch was street food at the Rockefeller Centre, I had a gyro, Juliet had her first hot dog.  Then, up the ‘Top of the Rock’. I haven’t been up the Rockefeller Building before,  and it certainly has the best high views north over Central Park, the lungs of New York from 66 floors up.

54 Top of Rock to Empire State (600x800)

Top of the Rock South with 1 WTC in the rear.

The View south is also amazing.

We also squashed in a quick visit to MOMA, before heading back uptown, but were too footsore to fully appreciate MOMA’s marvels in detail.  It was all too tempting to just take pictures (with flash off of course), rather than to study composition and technique of the art. I took just a few photos of iconic works, and bought a handful of postcards in the shop to add to my collection.  I had to squeeze one art gallery into our trip though. Cold foot baths and flannels on knees were required to ease the pain by the time we got back to the hotel – a routine that became a daily one!


While eating cheerios, we watched Michael J Fox, Christoper Lloyd and  Lea Thompson from Back to the Future II on the Today breakfast programme on NBC. Yes 21.10.2015 was the date they went back forward to. Made a mental note to buy a copy of USA Today on Thursday as it would have spoof news as if the film events had actually happened the day before to give to my sister-in-law whose birthday is 21st October. (sorry Becky – forgot!)

95 Wed Closer (800x600)An easier morning – we headed off by bus to the west side where we went on one of the Circle Line cruises. We should have circumnavigated the entire island on this cruise, but unfortunately, the entrance to the Harlem river had been closed by the police who were searching it for a weapon after a police officer was murdered on FDR Drive, also now closed, the night before – strange to see it empty of traffic.  So we went as far round the island in both directions as we could which was great as you saw everything twice, once in each direction.  We chose the cruise over visiting Liberty & Ellis Islands which I’d done before, but still got close to enough for great photo ops.

148 Wed Wall St Heliport (800x600)One amazing hive of activity you could only appreciate from the river was the Wall St Heliport, with chopper swooping taking off and swooping in to land all the time.

More street food for lunch, then we headed downtown to the 911 Memorial and Museum.  The two huge pools where the towers stood with water cascading down into the centres were moving and calming in the sunshine. The Museum below the plaza was similarly affecting, showing the exposed foundations of the towers, and the twisted and fractured remains of the pillars, alongside memorials to those who died.

178 Wed pm Flatiron (600x800)To cheer ourselves up afterwards we went shopping. Century 21 is like our TK Maxx, but we couldn’t find the right size jeans for Juliet. Relocating uptown a couple of stops, we consoled ourselves in Bath & Body Works near the Flatiron Building on the corner of Broadway and 5th Ave – one of my favourite skyscrapers (left).

Tired and footsore again, we headed back uptown. I had thought about booking theatre tickets, but the only show that appealed was the new musical of Finding Neverland – songs by Gary Barlow, with rave reviews (depending on your take on him). Even cheap seats were expensive though and we were too tired, so no Broadway show this time. Had we gone in November, we would have made an exception though for another new musical – School of Rock – I hope that comes to London’s West End – could be fun.

That’s the first half of our five nights in New York City – yes, there’s more tomorrow!


Reading as if his life depends on it…

Latest Readings by Clive James

Clive James Latest ReadingsI was supposed to review this book for the latest issue of Shiny, but just couldn’t write it up in time, so Simon obliged with a review for Shiny (here), in which I was surprised to read that Simon was actually new to James’ writing.  To me, he’s an old friend. I grew up reading his TV column in the Observer each week, went on Flying Visits with him, read most of his memoirs, and of course I diligently watched him on the telly. His rapier wit and deadpan Aussie delivery was perfect for dissecting the week’s TV viewing in a literary yet accessible and hilarious way.

Of course, he’s getting on a bit now, although still only 76 he’s sadly suffering from leukaemia – but as he said in the Guardian the other week ‘Still being alive is embarrassing.’ He’d expected to be dead by now, but new treatment is helping. Long may it continue.

James may have retired from making personal appearances, but in his reading and writing he is still indulging with gusto, and this book is the result of his publisher asking him what he’s been reading lately. It caused him to set off on a voyage of exploration amongst his newly winnowed shelves (having moved), but added to with each visit to Hugh’s bookstall on Cambridge market.

Even after the request came, I went on reading in no particular order, mixing books of obvious seriousness with books of seeming triviality; as I always have, in the belief that culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs that you won’t from a tenured professor.

However, he does institute a bit of plan to give this book an arc or re-readings – starting and finishing with Hemingway, going from young to old, and a peppering of Conrad throughout. We begin with Hemingway’s debut The Sun Also Rises:

All too often he overdoes the repetitions in those dialogue passages where the speakers seem mainly intent on echoing each other’s phrases. Worse, when they get drunk they start echoing themselves. But even with that irritating trick, he occasionally gets it so right that you laugh.

At this point, I had to (somewhat smugly) agree with him!  The next chapter moves on to Conrad – an author I’ve never read (but feel as if I have). On re-reading Lord Jim, which he’d found boring as a student.  He says:

… the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting.

I found that a fascinating point of view, and so true too, given a lifetime of reading and experience you would approach the historicity of a novel differently. In contrast, he says Nostromo is ‘one of the greatest books I have ever read.’

He discovers a love for Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, wondering why he’d never read them before (making me want to re-read them instantly), and discusses other series of novels such as Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford’s Parade’s End quartet, before moving on to devote a chapter to the charms of ‘Patrick O’Brian and His Salty Hero’. Urged into reading them by his daughter, he polished off all twenty volumes of the Aubrey/Maturin books, despite musing that O’Brian ‘doesn’t know what to do with an interesting female character.’

He talks eloquently about his love of factual books about the second world war and its leading figures, even if the contents are suspect or controversial.

We move on to another series of books – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  (I must get my reading of this series back on the tracks.)  James had been determined not to re-read them, but was waylaid by a complete set of paperbacks on Hugh’s bookstall with cover illustrations by a dear late friend of his, Mark Boxer.

And they do read well, as I soon found out all over again; because when I got them home I started reading them one after another. In the last years of his life I knew Powell well enought to be sure he would have approved of how I relished the physical experience of consuming his little books like plates of sweets and grapes as I sat on my garden terrace while the heat gradually went out of a long summer.

I could go on and on, for James’s prose is just so quotable, whether he’s talking about big volumes on politics and history, or his love of poetry. What I particularly love is his unsnobbish attitude and his joie de vivre for reading.  He can also make anything sound interesting. This little volume was an absolute joy to read, and it ought to go on your Christmas present lists for anyone who likes books about books.  I’ll finish with a quote from a chapter called ‘Extra Shelves’:

When is an extra bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don’t have to build it. In my house I am under steady pressure from my most frequent visitors – wife, two daughters – not to turn it into a book warehouse like every other dwelling I have ever been in.

… We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be in the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.

Couldn’t agree more! (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you!

Clive James, Latest Readings, August 2015, Yale Hardback, 192 pages.

Shiny Linkiness

I reviewed loads of new fiction titles for Issue 7 of Shiny New Books, so I think it’s time to give some of them a plug. Do pop over to read the full reviews – we’d appreciate it, and love it when you leave comments too (same goes for here of course).

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

two_years_eight_month_and_twentyeight_nights_0I haven’t read any Rushdie for a while, so had my fingers crossed with this book. No need, I enjoyed it a lot, although it turned to be more a philosophical fantasy than I was expecting.  Entering the world of the jinn was fascinating, and Rushdie’s modern take on the 1001 nights was fun although the little digressions keep you on your toes to re-find the main story sometimes.

Rushdie at his most playful, and restrained in length too. Definitely a thinking person’s fairy tale.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek

hrbekHrbek has written one other novel, The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly, which I had to order once I’d read this book.

Set around twenty years into the future, Not on Fire, but Burning starts with a stunning visual prologue in which the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed, and San Francisco is irradiated – (we’re never sure by whom or what). It then settles into a disturbing story in which the USA is segregating Muslims and one brave old army veteran decides to adopt a Muslim kid from one of the camps – to do his bit for liberalism and making amends. He doesn’t realise that the twelve-year-old boy, Karim, who comes to live with him is already radicalised.  When a fight is engineered between white kid Dorian next door and Karim, it starts off a whole chain reaction of events.

This was a really thought-provoking novel that imagines possible futures that we hope will never happen.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

kauthar-195x300 (1)Meike’s third novel Kauthar is another tale of radicalisation. It is about a white British girl who converts to Islam, marries and Iraqi doctor, following him out there after 9/11 only to find that life there has a different set of rules and expectations that will try her devoutness. In emotional turmoil, she turns to God, but the distorted answers she finds set her on an extreme path.

Full of strong imagery, we flip between Lydia as a child, who is desperate to be a gymnast and the devout Kauthar she becomes. Told in the present tense, it is very immediate and we are really taken into Kauthar’s mind. As in Meike’s first novel Magda we are helped to understand, without condoning her behaviour.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

wilckenIt’s the late 1940s, or early 1950s. A psychiatrist takes a phone call to be told his ex-wife has died. A while later, he’s called on as a police surgeon to section a man in custody in a seedy apartment. Not thinking straight he does as asked, but later regrets this and sets out to find out more about the man.

The Reflection has all the hallmarks of a classic noir novel: a narrator in crisis, a psychological drama, a femme fatale (or two), a whole string of coincidences that are anything but and a sense that everything is being stage-managed to turn the protagonist into one of his patients, which he must resist, whatever the cost. The main character was a little boring but, The Reflection is an interesting exercise in which nothing is actually in black and white, less noir, more grey.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

Such good cheesy fun

Emperor Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

emperor-fu-manchuBeing a huge fan of adventure and James Bond type novels, you might expect me to have read the Fu-Manchu books too, but somehow I never did. Until now – and having read this one, which happens to be the penultimate book of the series, I want to go back to the beginning and read the lot.

Sax Rohmer was the pen-name of a former civil servant from Birmingham called Arthur Henry Ward. He turned to writing in his twenties and published his first Fu-Manchu story in a magazine in 1912 becoming very popular in the 1920s & 30s.  He wrote fourteen Fu-Manchu books in total, from that date until his death in 1959. Emperor Fu-Manchu is the last full novel, the final book in the series being a collection of shorter stories previously published.

Dr. Fu-Manchu is the archetype of the evil genius, and is surely the inspiration behind Dr No.  Fu-Manchu is an Oriental megalomaniac scientist who uses fantastical means to achieve his ends. He was created as a response to the perceived threat to the West of Chinese domination, which as you may imagine was controversial even at the time, and by our modern standards quite politically incorrect.

As the books go on, the political stance changes, and by Emperor Fu-Manchu he shares a common enemy with West – the Communists. Of course Fu-Manchu’s way of going about ridding the world of them, with his organisation the Si-Fan, is more akin to the aims for global domination of SMERSH/SPECTRE in the Bond novels and films, than that of the Western establishments.

Of course every evil genius has to have the authorities constantly on his tail. The British spymaster in charge is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, who despite getting on in age in the later books, appears to have lost none of his faculties and be as sprightly as ever he was. Nayland-Smith is clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and has his own version of Watson in the early novels.  In this late novel, as it starts he is instructing an American agent born in Hong Kong named Tony McKay that he will work with about his role in the mission. McKay, who can pass for Chinese is to penetrate the ‘second Bamboo Curtain’ to confirm that ‘The Master’ deep in the province of Szechuan is Dr Fu-Manchu.

“There’s some number one top secret being hidden in Szechuan. Miltary Intelligence thinks it’s a Soviet project. I believe it’s a Fu-Manchu project. He may be playing the Soviets at their own game. Dr. Fu-Manchu has no more use for Communism than I have for Asiatic flu. But so far all attempts to solve the puzzle have come apart. Local agents are only of limited use, but you may find them helpful and they’ll be looking out for  you. You’ll have the sign and countersigns. Dine with me tonight and I’ll give you a thorough briefing.” (p12)

No sooner does McKay infiltrate his way towards the Russian ‘leprosy centre’ posing as a fisherman looking for his missing fiancée, than he ends up in a Chinese cell. While nearby, the new governor of the province is meeting his old friend, ‘The Master’…

The man seated there wore a loose yellow robe. His elbows rested on the desk, and his fingers – long, yellow fingers – were pressed together; he might have reminded an observer of a praying mantis. He had the high brow of a philosopher and features suggesting great intellectual power. This aura of mental force seemed to be projected by his eyes, which were of a singular green color. As he stared before him as if at some distant vision, from time to time his eyes filmed over in an extraordinary manner.
The room, in which there lingered a faint, sickly smell of opium, was completely silent. (p18)

I’m not going to expound on the plot much further, suffice to say that Nayland-Smith’s local agents free McKay who escapes to a nearby moored sampan only to discover a girl on board, also hiding. At first he’s not sure he can trust Yueh Hua – but of course he falls for her. There’s lots of back and forth between various safe houses of friends of Nayland-Smith, who pops up all over the place, as they try to find out more about the army of ‘Cold Men’ that Fu-Manchu has working for him as his private army. Essentially frozen zombies, this introduces the mad scientist with a fantastical process to reanimate corpses element to the story. There is spying, fighting, capture, escape, romance and more as Nayland-Smith and colleagues try destroy the top secret Soviet centre before Fu-Manchu can get his hands on it.

Fu-Manchu and Nayland-Smith made fascinating adversaries – and the strangest thing was that both were men of their word, neither will lie to each other. This means that some things cannot be said and McKay has to keep Nayland-Smith in the dark on one matter, because McKay knows that Nayland-Smith would feel compelled to tell Fu-Manchu if he knew. Honour amongst thieves and spies eh!

These books were written in English by an Englishman. The new editions are global but made in America, and some Americanisms have crept in to spellings, e.g. color, etc. While this is annoying, you don’t really notice it once hooked by the plot. It is great to have the full set nearly back in print (one more to come), and I enjoyed the fun cheesiness of this adventure a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Sax Rohmer, Emperor Fu-Manchu (1959). Titan books paperback, 2015, 240 pages.

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